There is a fine line when using the verb “titillate.” Broadly, the word can simply mean “excite” or “thrill.” Taken more seriously, the word sharpens closer to “arouse” or “stimulate.” Context, ahem, is key. Auggie, the feature directorial debut of actor Matt Kane, walks that fine line of titillation and deftly blurs where to place its context on that line. This independent film debuts in limited release and VOD platforms on September 20th.
Felix, played by TV mainstay Richard Kind, is an architect pushed not-so-mildly and not-so-quietly into retirement. His parting gift from the office before going home to his upper middle class sweatpants, departing adult daughter (Simone Policano of Extra Innings), newly acquired free time, and a beautiful working wife Anne (fellow TV veteran Susan Blackwell) is a pricey bauble named “Auggie.” It’s a pair of seemingly normal spectacles that operate as an augmented reality companion or personal assistant. Auggie uses subconscious brain signals gathered from sensors in the temples to personalize a human image projected into the wearer’s view as if they were part of the environment. The created virtual person interacts in real time with unending support and positivity.
To observers on the outside, Auggie users look like they are oddly carrying on a conversation with someone who is not there. Our increasingly bored and listless new retiree becomes curious about the possibilities and puts the glasses on. What he projects is a beautiful twenty-something brunette (supermodel and first-time film actress Christen Harper) that hangs on his every word with eagerness and an ever-present smile. When Anne gets a promotion that adds work hours and a closer relationship to an interested peer (James C. Victor), Felix is left to his own devices and an imagination being fueled by Auggie. The bewitching, womanly spectre is a bug in his ear who doubles as one in his eyes.
Selfish as it may be, Felix, just as he says in the film, needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Professional goals have been dashed and familial fulfillment has gone distant. In talking to this imaginary woman with all the right answers, Felix gets exactly what the product promised to deliver: companionship. At least Auggie notices and talks to him. He shortsightedly finds that these experiences are all he has. For the social animals we are, motivation comes from shared conversation. Digital interaction beats no interaction at all. That is, until it goes to far.
Sure enough, attention escalates to affection within Felix. An add-on upgrade grants a new level of physical stimuli to go with the mental titillation. Once Felix finds superior fulfillment away from Anne, his emotional detachment leads to multiple pratfalls. You will find yourself asking two questions. First, there is a comparison of the degree of error between digital cheating and the real flesh-and-blood thing. Also, you wonder which reality Felix will choose. The true inspirational source of what or who matches Harper’s image of Felix’s Auggie is a stunner that lights this lesson on fire.
Shot with intentionally gray filters, the atmosphere of Auggie is wholly opposite the metaphor of rose-colored glasses. Auggie transparently wades often in a place of sadness because, echoing Lesson #1, we’re watching, in essence, a one-sided conversation. Richard Kind glows and melts nearly simultaneously in this role of euphoric highs and destructive lows. His disarmed yearning is palatable. For those that only see Richard ham it up in spots on the small screen, Auggie will be a revelation for his presence and aged talent.
The absorbing and impressive pull of Auggie comes from its combination of camera and editing work from two feature film first-timers in cinematographer Natasha Mullan and editor Marc Underhill. Mullan, working her first lead lenser spot after years as a second assistant camera and film loader on bigger things, constantly toys with placement in a genius fashion. During innocent and later more amorous exchanges, the camera switches back and forth between direct and inescapable eye contact to represent the POVs from Felix and Auggie. The piercing gazes those shots represent in close-up could not prod more personal or engaging.
Then, to remind the isolation, Mullan’s placement and a quick cut from Underhill will step back to across a room or a longer difference of distance. The fantasized beauty of Harper disappears while the conversations continue or close. Becoming the observer instead of the recipient, these shifts coyly reveal and remind the true half-filled reality of this relationship. These little jolts orchestrated by director Matt Kane linger quite well. This shrewd and stellar work creates a viewing effect in Auggie that tantalizingly bounces your comfort level between intimacy and voyeurism. This moral rattler deserves attention and praise as indie gem.