I participated in a sleep study six years ago. It was a claustrophobic experience. All sorts of tubes and wires hooked onto my body to determine the source of my night terrors. Well, turns out the problem was poor sleep due to anemia (of which I had no idea night terrors were a symptom). While finding the solution to my problem was simple (it came in the form taking iron pills), the lead character in Anthony Scott Burns’ new sci-fi horror film Come True, doesn’t have it so easy.
The film, which premiered at Fantasia Fest 2020, examines the science of sleep through its main character whose mind travels from one nightmare to the next in an effort to uncover the cause of her sleeplessness. It’s a real shame that a refreshing premise, encapsulated in an expertly crafted film, with excellently paced jump scares, turns out to be a narratively clumsy, unmitigated mess with a conclusion that is downright insulting to its audience.
The film begins with 18-year-old Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) waking up in a park. With a tense living situation at home, she prefers to couch surf. In addition to uncertain housing, she suffers from night terrors that prevent her from sleeping a full 8 hours. She gets in trouble, falls asleep in class, and is in danger of ruining her GPA.
At school, she finds a flyer calling for sleep study participants at a local university. The opportunity comes precisely at the right time, offering both a space to rest her head and perhaps a way towards defeating the terrible dreams that torment her. Before long, Sarah realizes that she’s become the channel to a frightening new discovery and her dreams may be the doorway to something far more sinister than a bad GPA.
The state of sleep is a science all on its own. I’m not well versed in this science, but with the little knowledge I have, brainwave activity during dream states can present us with a distorted version of reality. Our reality shapes our subconscious and the subconscious shapes our dreams. The battle between dreams and waking life is the crux of Sarah’s dilemma: a harrowing journey for a character with agency — something Sarah lacks. Things happen to Sarah and she isn’t given the ability to change it, which means her character sees no real change because she has no story arc. Sarah is being strung along like a character in a video game with no ending.
The production and set design make this film bearable. Scott constructs a spine-chilling, creepy underworld that reflects the depths of Sarah’s mind and that’s beautiful to behold. There are small breadcrumbs throughout Come True that pay homage to Scott’s inspirations. In one scene, Sarah first meets sleep study doctor Jeremy who suggests she check a Phillip K. Dick book out of the library. You don’t reference a prolific sci-fi writer without finding inspiration in their work. The deeper Sarah goes into her dreams, the darker and violent they become, mirroring elements from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, all of these literary references also do nothing for the story.
At times, dreams can be prophetic, at others they can be the doorway to something else entirely. How would you shape your dreams if you have full control over them and were conscious within them? There is much to explore and Come True does a great job masquerading as something intelligent and it almost exceeds but you don’t realize that until the very end of the third act.
Sarah is an unreliable mystery box, which leaves the labor of unpacking what exactly occurred in the film to the audience: a task that will be more frustrating than it is fun. The twist comes at a point in the film so late that you’ve already lost interest. What a waste because there is a better story underneath the surface that just doesn’t rise to the top.