The Artifice Girl

The Artifice Girl does a better job of world-building than many productions 100 times its size. Written and directed by Franklin Ritch, who a Netflix or HBO Max would be wise to snatch up immediately for a development deal, it enlists five actors and very few sets to create a chilly but captivating reality, not unlike our own, in which to ask challenging questions about personhood and consent.

The film, a standout at the Fantasia Film Festival, begins with a furtive young man (Ritch) being questioned by two mysterious government agents (Sinda Nichols and David Girard) demanding he reveal an online alias. After an aside that pokes a little fun at the excessive CGI effects powering Star Wars-sized productions, we learn what the young man is up to, and why. An unexpected alliance is formed, with the highest possible stakes. And we meet our hero, the Artifice Girl of the title, played by an outstanding child actor, Tatum Matthews.

I’m giving away as little as possible because I think the movie is most effective if you watch it as I did, knowing only its intriguing title. There are 10 actors in all, but five do almost all of the talking, bouncing around complicated ideas about when children and computers should be granted certain rights, and how to prevent the exploitation of both. We’re asked what makes computers, which make decisions based on data, different from us. It’s top-notch sci-fi on a very human scale.

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Ritch does countless things screenwriters are always told not to do: the characters drop scads of exposition and hypothesize about big concepts. There is very little action. And yet The Artifice Girl is almost impossible to stop watching, because the leads do such an excellent job of engulfing you in their hopes and fears. They talk over and around each other with masterfully choreographed energy and passion. Britt McTammany’s cinematography perfectly captures the fim’s emotional tone: elegant, efficient, unfussy. It doesn’t hurt that the writing it so clear and concise: A monologue about choosing dinner is a standout.

The film slows down its addictive rhythm in a third act that introduces Lance Henrikson, and I missed the pacing of its first two acts. But the slowdown is essential to the story, and setting up the film’s outstanding final scene.

Ritch is as good an actor as he is a writer-director; it’s especially impressive that The Artifice Girl is his first feature. Part of me wants him to go make Star Wars-sized movies respectable, but even more than that, I want to see what else he can do with a few excellent actors in a few nondescript rooms. His ideas are big enough for the big screen, and to linger in our thoughts after. The questions he asks will only become more compelling as Moore’s Law continues to do its thing and we turn increasingly to algorithms to police people.

Producers Aaron B. Koontz and Ashleigh Snead of Paper Street Pictures and executive producer Peter Kuplowsky should be proud, as should Ritch, who also produced through his Last Resort Ideas. Ritch works out of Jacksonville, Florida, far from the static of Los Angeles and New York, and it’s clear that the distance has given him space to think. The Artifice Girl is indie genre filmmaking at its best.