Screening at the ongoing Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, now in the latter half of this year's run, is Russell Sharman’s micro-budget indie Apartment 4E (previously titled Small Of Her Back) – a two-character dark romance about Piper (Nicole Beharie), a young woman diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder who gets a knock on her door by John (newcomer Christopher Domig), a man who claims to be the brother of a Molly; the latter is a woman Piper has built an online relationship with for the past three months.

Apartment 4E – described as a “suicidal shut in” – has the feel of a stage play, especially the scenes – where most of the film takes place – between Piper and John in Piper’s small, clustered apartment. And it’s no surprise; writer/director Sharman adapted his 2008 stage play of the same name to the screen.

It’s not a film for everyone; but one that I definitely appreciated for its script – intelligent, clever wordplay and original, unpredictable twists – and compelling performances by Beharie and Domig. And perhaps it’s not a film for everyone because its references to “catching a meaning”, its in-depth mental illness/Psychiatry terminology and a book of poems called Constance by Jane Kenyon, as well as what may be seen as a wacky – rather unconventional, some will call theatrical – performance by Beharie may be lost on some.null

But that’s why I also enjoyed this film.  I do not recall a film with a black female lead – actually Halle Berry’s Frankie and Alice comes to mind – that is as complex, challenging, and devoid of racial references as this one. Taking in consideration that the film was shot over 14 days and the actors rehearsed for only two, the results are pretty amazing.

When we first meet Piper in her apt as she sticks pieces of notepaper all over her walls and in monologue attempting to come up with specific words, we can’t quite figure out her eccentric antics. John, a lonesome, melancholic character comes to Piper’s door and tries to convince her that he’s Molly’s brother. After hearing Piper fire a gun, he breaks in the door and eventually settles in her apartment.

Piper is moody and compulsive; she’s manic; she’s unpredictable; welcoming and flirtatious one minute and angry, defensive, homicidal and suicidal the next.  She lives in a fantasy world –it’s safe- in which her online “friend” Molly, whom she has never met/seen aside from the “four little flat pictures and characters on the screen”, really loves her.

The mystery lies in finding out the intentions of these two characters. Why is John so adamant in trying “to help” Piper? Is he really Molly’s brother? Piper isn’t naïve, and as the film progresses she outsmarts John as she solves the puzzle.  Domig, a newcomer with a few credits under his belt, pulls off a rich and layered performance as the observant, seemingly kind-natured John. The two unlikely characters have chemistry; and even though there’s no explicit romance, there’s plenty of tension.

I couldn’t help thinking of the taboos of mental illness, especially in the black community. It’s easy to label Piper and say, “She’s crazy”. Yet, it’s not because she’s a “crack-head”. Piper is incredibly astute and bright. It’s also difficult to overlook her beauty, but Beharie is able to pull it off convincingly. Another aspect which adds complexity and the element of taboo is her character's dubious sexuality. Is she a Lesbian? Bi? Does it matter?

For its very limited budget, the film’s cinematography by Noah Yuan-Vogel is quite stunning.

It’s not a perfect film; some scenes had an experimental feel to them. Yet, the film’s distinct peculiarities stay with you long after watching it, which is why I found Apartment 4E intellectually stimulating and gripping.

One Village Entertainment picked up worldwide rights to the film last month, for release later this year.

In the meantime, it'll screen again at the PAFF on Sunday.

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