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Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie see a new drug up close in "Synchronic."

You may not know the names of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. I’ve been tracking this filmmaking team for a while now. I liked their debut feature Spring and was less enamored of their follow-up film The Endless (in which they starred), but in both I found makers of intelligent, thoughtful science-fiction with special effects that look cool even on the low budgets that they work with. Their third movie, Synchronic, hits our theaters this week with one recognizable actor, and it’s a better-realized time travel film than either Tenet or the Bill & Ted sequel.

The film begins with two New Orleans paramedics, harried family man Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and self-described “junkie paramedic cliché” Steve (Anthony Mackie) observing a rash of strange cases involving sword wounds, deaths by burning, and disappearances that all seem to be tied to a new designer drug called Synchronic. When Dennis’ teenage daughter (Ally Ioannides) vanishes at a college party where the pill was circulating, the urgency to find out the drug’s effects becomes palpable. Fortunately, the chemist who designed Synchronic (Ramiz Monsef) breaks into Steve’s house after seeing him snap up the rest of the pills and explains that the drug can physically transport people through time if they’re teens or have a potentially lethal brain tumor like Steve happens to have. Thus, Steve starts experimenting with the drug and has experiences that he describes as “orangutang fucking crazy,” which is good enough for me.

Moorhead and Benson are savvy enough to realize that a Black man traveling through time is going to find places where he’s not welcome. The time that Steve travels to depends on his physical location when the pill kicks in, so he winds up having to fight off Ku Klux Klansmen, Spanish conquistadors, and Ice Age cavemen. (Spicily, he’s almost killed in the present day, too, by the police after he shows up to a scene in his civilian clothes.) He also takes his dog on one of his journeys, and it doesn’t end well. The directors’ visual flair — Moorhead is the cinematography half of this team — is apparent from the beginning, when a nameless couple in a hotel room take the drug together and see a plant in their room suddenly gathering frost. So many movies take place in New Orleans for tax reasons and because the filmmakers want to shoot Bourbon Street or those plantations, but this one references specific events in the city’s history.

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What makes their films so satisfying is their attention to character. Benson is the writing half of this team, and he’s good enough to make roles that are rewarding to play; even Dornan does well by a speech at a bar when Dennis says his marriage is falling apart. Steve’s climactic speech about how his time travels and prospects of imminent death have given him an appreciation for the here and now might have turned to mush in a lesser actor’s hands, but Mackie makes it sing. Known from playing Falcon in the Avengers movies (speaking of films about time travel), Mackie doesn’t receive nearly enough roles that showcase him like this. Unlike some science-fiction creators, Benson and Moorhead don’t forget the human beings at the center of their stories. Nor do they lose their sense of wonder at our existence on this planet. As long as that’s the case, they’ll be filmmakers to keep an eye on.

Synchronic
Starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Written by Justin Benson. Rated R.

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