In contemporary, genre-splashed Indiewood, the task is often simple but bedevilling: You have an HD camera and a modest house in the L.A. hills; now what do you do? Shane Carruth, among others, has proven that you don't need much more — just add ideas. Call it Home-Based Sci-Fi; from 2006's Right at Your Door to 2012's It's a Disaster, movies that evoke apocalypse but never actually leave the dining room. Launching into a torrent of unmitigated exposition over wine glasses, Coherence is the paradigm eating itself, almost literally, flirting with absurdity by way of some hoary pseudo-science and getting happily lost in the conundrums. And it's still only eight Hollywood fringies at a dinner party, talking their pretty heads off.
First-timer James Ward Byrkit, whose handyman résumé up to now has been dominated by big-budget storyboarding and a writing credit on Rango, keeps things generic. Anxious blonde Em (Emily Foxler) arrives at the soirée-to-be ahead of her boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling), who is waiting for an answer to the Big Question. There are the hosts (Nicholas Brendon and Lorene Scafaria), Kevin's provocateur ex-girlfriend (Lauren Maher), a slightly older new-age diva (ex-Miss America Elizabeth Gracen) who introduces a homemade, ketamine-based anti-anxiety serum into the mix, and so on. The trigger is the news of a comet passing overhead and an ominously dished tale about a (fictional) comet that passed over Finland in 1923 and reportedly skewed people's identities. Before long, the smartphones crack, the power goes out, and an intrepid cohort decide to visit a strangely familiar house up the street, from which they return the same but not quite.
Is it a spoiler to let on that the doppelgänger-isms start showing up one-third of the way in? From there, the reveals are all Byrkit has in the bank, so suffice it to say that reality goes all quantum, even though everything appears normal. With its enigmas revealed in dialogue alone, Coherence could be a radio play, and thankfully so, since the handheld, lo-fi digital visuals are so taxing. Even so, the narrative could hardly function without a contrivance payload that could drive you bonkers: Within minutes of inexplicable occurrences, the straight-faced, panicking characters are talking "decoherence" and macro-quantums and meeting their "other selves." We may wonder why they don't just get into their cars and go home, but they don't, and the more this gaggle of narcissistic trendies (a dancer, a social-networking exec, a veteran of the Roswell TV show) try to reorder their tiny universes, the more we're told they're fragmenting.
The Rod Serling tension Byrkit is angling for never quite arrives, nor does any real Borgesian frisson. But thanks to its social setting, the film does offer a vivid and perhaps intentional satirical portrait of L.A. culture, where solid identities swap and get lost and seem always just out of reach. "We can't trust ourselves," someone says deep in, and the L.A. feeling of intoxicated unconnectedness, of being somewhere that's really nowhere, may not have a more concise cinematic analogue. Coherence is abstracted sci-fi that couldn't happen, but it also couldn't have happened anyplace else.