You’re not paranoid if they’re actually out to get you.
You’re not paranoid if they’re actually out to get you. Starry-eyed Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), freshly relocated to L.A. to pursue her dream of costume design, learns this the hard way when she is specifically selected, out of a pool of dozens of qualified applicants, to move into the vacant flat in a gated community that even on the surface appears perhaps too close-knit. Moving to the big city without knowing anyone can be a big adjustment. At first blush, Sarah sees the positives of living in a place where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. Sure, the frequent building-wide shindigs feel compulsory and the other tenants perhaps come off a bit suffocating, but Sarah enjoys the company of former actress Miss Stanhope (Susan Davis) and the attention of fresh-faced boy next door Brian (Giles Matthey), even if the one-eyed lurker Lester (Clayton Hoff) creeps her out.
At first, this transition to city living seems like a breath of fresh air to Sarah, who still grieves for a dead mother and pulls away from a philandering father, even though she must hide her cat from the other tenants in the pet-free building. But soon, strange noises in the walls keep her up at night and threatening notes about the dander from her illicit feline are slipped under her door. Of course, these warnings signs are only the tip of the iceberg as the complex’s true cultish nature is starkly revealed, thrusting the film into territory about the terrors of groupthink and extreme manipulation that most closely align with horror stories told by those who have escaped Scientology. The shift in tone, from creeping dread to outright torture, is more abrupt than found in similar subject matter with 2016’s The Invitation, but the two films bear many similarities, specifically in how their cultists ensnare marks with hospitality and ultimately hold them captive within the confines of home.
But whereas The Invitation was concerned with death cults, writer-director David Marmor’s 1BR focuses on hive-mindfulness as a way of life, with all its surveillance-enforced strictures. The community’s leader, Jerry (Taylor Nichols), following the guidance of a long-dead L. Ron Hubbard type seen only in archival footage, believes in abject surrender as a purifying ritual, in which transcendence is achieved by stamping out all individuality in service to the greater good. It’s a familiar refrain in these types of stories, and it’s not difficult to trace the film’s influences back to an Orwellian Big Brother, especially as the complex is rife with closed-circuit cameras. 1BR’s modest success, then, doesn’t stem from an originality of ideas, but in its commitment to them, taking the narrative further than the expected ending point for its protagonist and instead showing just how effective the heady mix of Stockholm syndrome and methodical cult brainwashing can be in turning the persecuted into the oppressors.
Bloom is merely adequate as our protagonist, Sarah. Whereas Nichols juxtaposes menace and warped affection as the ringleader and Matthey excels at jarring shifts between flirt and threat, Bloom’s performance doesn’t offer the same confliction or cognitive dissonance, even though Sarah as a character must undergo almost unfathomable mental contortions throughout the film. Marmor’s script moves crisply enough through its various phases, however, and rarely gets bogged down in exposition, instead letting things unfold more organically. Though it offers concepts familiar to anyone who’s watched one of the many films based on the Manson Family in recent years, or who has taken in the various exposés on Scientology’s frightening manipulation of its flock, 1BR nevertheless offers just enough surprises to keep the viewer on their toes, while sadly (given its extreme subject matter) not requiring too great a suspension of disbelief.