As science fiction goes, Come True is relatively stripped-down and grounded. It takes place in familiar yet nondescript locations. It has no distractingly big stars or special effects. Its wildest technology is pointedly retro: sleep-studying equipment that feeds into boxy, clunky-looking monitors. But writer-director and cinematographer Anthony Scott Burns gives his movie an otherworldly aura, as seen through the tired but watchful eyes of Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone).
Sarah is a teenager with a sleek, bleachy haircut and a determined stance on her bike as she zips around her hometown. She’s avoiding her family residence for unspecified reasons, sleeping fitfully on playgrounds and friends’ floors, barely getting by on coffee (three to six cups a day, she estimates at one point) and bathroom-stall catnaps at her high school. With muted lighting and shallow-focus close-ups of his star, Burns makes all the daytime action feel like it’s taking place minutes after dawn, while every night scene feels like it’s taking place at 3 a.m. The movie captures how exhaustion can make the whole world seem dimmer.
Come True is intentionally vague about whether Sarah’s bedlessness has exacerbated an existing sleep disorder, or simply complemented conditions that are already sleep-unfriendly. A few bits of background are offered when she signs up for a long-term sleep study — but nothing too personal, as she keeps it light with her interviewer and eventual minder Anita (Carlee Ryski). The study is more involved than Sarah initially expects; she’s forced to wear a retro-futuristic body-suit with a complicated series of wired hook-ups. But it beats napping in a sleeping bag on a playground slide.
The architects of this sleep study don’t seem to notice or care that they’ve enlisted a teenage girl without parental consent, possibly because they’re too busy concealing their true purpose. Whenever Sarah asks a casual question about the study, she’s met with cagey answers, even where it seems like a simple lie would do the trick. Eventually, Burns jumps away from Sarah’s point of view to reveal that the scientists have figured out how to “read” brainwaves and peer into people’s dreams (via fuzzy, analog-looking imagery, anyway). They’re using this technology to study nightmares, which for Sarah are not in short supply.
Come True depicts these nightmares in disappointingly uniform fashion. Somehow, across multiple test subjects, bad dreams all look like tracking shots through murky music-video imagery, eventually focusing on a shadowy figure with glowing eyes. It turns out the scientists have identified this figure as a “unified fear” that, they theorize, appears in basically everyone’s nightmares — so of course it would have to be at least a little bit generic. But for all of its visual distinction in the real-world scenes, the movie isn’t especially savvy at creating layers of individual dreams that might be peeled back to reveal this silent, universal boogeyman. It’s a wonder no one ever had a conversation revealing that their dreams all speak the same language of spookiness.
Still, the idea does have a shivery effectiveness. Essentially, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street with a sense of pure dread in place of a gleefully evil Freddy Krueger figure. Burns understands the clammy, vivid feelings of a bad dream, even if the imagery itself is pretty rote. He also has a skilled navigator of those bad feelings in Stone, who makes Sarah’s opacity empathetic and compelling. In one scene, a slightly older guy named Jeremy (Landon Liboiron) recommends a Philip K. Dick novel to her in a bookstore; Stone does a masterful job at subtly conveying how uncomfortable this is making her, without ever relying on dialogue to press the issue. On paper, Jeremy is making casual, polite conversation. In reality, Stone shows us, he’s making her want to crawl out of her skin.
Sarah’s instincts are right on; though he doesn’t cop to it right away, she knows Jeremy from her nightly sleep study, and confronts him about it. Though she wants to drop out — her study roommate already has — she sticks around when she realizes he can provide her with crucial information the others are withholding. Despite her initial misgivings, and despite the earlier presence of Sarah’s best friend Zoe (Tedra Rogers), who more or less disappears from the movie, the two of them become close.
Does Burns grasp the creepy undertones of their relationship? Perhaps not fully; the screenplay is a little too eager to have Sarah irritably and directly state that she’s 18, which in this context feels like protesting too much. By the time the movie gets around to addressing the most discomfiting aspect of one particular second-half plot turn, Burns seems distracted by a truly strange final stretch that moves the story in several directions at once before arriving at an unsatisfying none-of-the-above ending. (It’s generally a good idea to avoid delivering possible plot twists to the audience via text message.)
Come True has some bone-chilling passages, like an epic sleepwalking sequence that feels eerily untethered from reality. Yet some chunks of it feel informed by the sleep-study scenes that unfold by the sickly glow of monitors: too clinical for pure-horror scares while lacking in convincing science fiction specifics. True to form, this is an impressively dreamlike movie: half vivid, half inexplicable.