Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) is a man seemingly lost in his own life. It has been six months since a car accident that killed his wife and left him medically brain-dead. But with a recovery that all deemed miraculous, Nolan survived and woke up, but has lost his memory. His patient and precocious daughter Ava (the naturalistic scene-stealer Amanda Christine) gently guides him through his day, reminding him of his daily routines, and leaving notes around the house. His best friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), a doctor, lends an ear when he can, but leaves Nolan’s recovery to the neurological professionals. But Nolan still struggles to remember his life before the accident.
Frustrated, he finally answers the persistent calls of one Dr. Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) who encourages him to come to her office to try some of her cutting edge memory retrieval experiments that are just this side of Catherine Keener stirring a cup of tea in Get Out. But as Nolan delves deeper into his suppressed memories involving Dr. Brooks’ hypnotism and a device she calls the black box, the discoveries are more troubling than comforting.
At this point, I don’t want to give anything away. I have to admit, the first half of Black Box was slow, and Nolan himself was a bit wishy-washy to fully invest myself in as a viewer. But stick with it: When Black Box twists at the halfway mark, it really hits its stride. In less deft hands, this would have been a psychological horror/thriller, but Osei-Kuffour along with his co-writers Wade Allain-Marcus and Stephen Herman instill it with a surprise emotional heft that caught me off guard.
It is fun to see Phylicia Rashad in a sort of mad-scientist role–her inherent motherliness quickly gives way to menace as she chews her scenes. But the rest of the cast also carries the weight of this indie impressively. This is one of those films where the science is of course questionable (where wires, a spooky medical device, and lots of tapping of code on a computer work magic), but the straightforward earnestness of the story itself completely works. Black Box is an assured, confident debut, and I can’t wait to see what this filmmaking team creates next.