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Sundance movie review: 'Presence' is Steven Soderbergh's latest experimental triumph

From left, Callina Liang, Chris Sullivan, Eddy Maday and Lucy Liu star in "Presence." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
From left, Callina Liang, Chris Sullivan, Eddy Maday and Lucy Liu star in "Presence." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Presence, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, is Steven Soderbergh's Paranormal Activity. It's not as minimalist as the video camera horror movie, but it is an effective experiment with Soderbergh's resources.

The Payne family moves into a new house. The entire film unfolds through the point of view of a spiritual presence in the house, who watches the family and sometimes moves objects.

The lens used for the presence's point of view distorts the house to elongate rooms and curve faces in the center of frame. That alone gives the whole story an off-kilter feeling.

Soderbergh wore a virtual reality headset himself to film the presence's angle. Footage of Soderbergh doing that would probably be an even better movie, but maybe that'll be on the DVD.

The whole film is not one continuous take, though. It cuts to black between scenes, but just staging all the drama with this technique is an ambitious escalation of the "found footage" technique of films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project.

Steven Soderbergh directed "Presence." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Steven Soderbergh directed "Presence." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Even though it's always the presence observing, the family drama becomes engrossing enough that it can be surprising when the presence reasserts itself. Then when the film focuses on the presence, it's able to remind you there are still these family issues to resolve.

Rebekah (Lucy Liu) and Christopher (Chris Sullivan) are struggling to help their daughter, Chloe (Callina Liang) cope with the death of her high school friends. Their son, Tyler (Eddy Maday) wanted to be in a new school district, hence their choice of the house.

Lucy Liu stars in "Presence." File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI
Lucy Liu stars in "Presence." File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI

Grief is a relatable turmoil and the death of a child would affect anybody, let alone a classmate. That also makes Chloe more open minded about the presence.

Each family member has a distinct perspective, creating conflict between four opposing ones. Chloe thinks the presence may be her dead friend, which upsets Christopher and annoys Tyler.

Chris Sullivan, seen with Rachel Reichard, stars in "Presence." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
Chris Sullivan, seen with Rachel Reichard, stars in "Presence." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI

Christopher wants to put Chloe in therapy but Rebekah believes Chloe just needs time to grieve. Such disagreements escalate as it becomes clear Christopher is closer to Chloe and Rebekah closer to Tyler.

The presence gets increasingly more aggressive. It knocks over a whole shelf to interrupt Chloe making out with her brother's friend Derek (West Mulholland) and protects her by knocking over tainted drinks.

Julia Fox plays a realtor in "Presence." File Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/UPI
Julia Fox plays a realtor in "Presence." File Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/UPI

Savvy viewers may catch onto what the presence is, and David Koepp's script does follow some of the genre rules for haunted house stories. Still, Presence has some genuine surprises up its sleeve.

Some of those surprises pay off themes established through the family drama. Pay attention to Christopher's frequent scolding of Tyler for mocking his sister, because the presence was paying attention.

The film provides many answers by the end, although there is just enough ambiguity to spark further discussion. As a style experiment, Presence gives enough emotional drama and shocks to warrant going along with this concept.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.