We all crave security, community and a sense of belonging. In an increasingly alienating and atomised world, those who can offer these comforts to the unwary have an irresistible lure. In 1BR, a young woman moves into a housing complex that markets itself as a tight-knit, diverse community full of barbecues and neighbourly values. What she finds instead is a terrifying cult that demands total obedience and enforces it with brutal reprisals.
Sara (Nicole Brydon Bloom) has escaped from her overbearing father and fled to the independence offered by LA. Temping at a law firm while she looks for a place to live, she finds herself enamoured with a luxury apartment complex. When she receives an invite to join the exclusive community, her only concern is hiding her cat from her neighbours, as it is against building rules. Little does she know that penalties for breaking the tenancy agreement go a little bit further than passive-aggressive notes…
There’s a lot of potential for timely metaphors here. The film focuses on how people’s desire for community and nostalgia for an imagined idyllic past can be subverted by bad actors with a cynical agenda. It’s not hard to see how this could be used as a dark mirror of current events. It’s a shame, then, that like the cloistered community it focuses on, the film feels strangely disconnected from the wider world.
This is partly a case of characterisation. A lot of the central figures come off as a little one-dimensional, with their clearly delineated roles (creepy weirdo, charismatic love interest, quirky old neighbour) leaving little room for exploration. Bloom’s performance is strong, but there’s little sense that her character has had any kind of past. She responds to the extreme situation she finds herself in, but doesn’t exude much of a personality beyond these responses.
That said, the self-contained world that the film presents is surprisingly realistic. Director David Marmor took inspiration from Southern California quasi-religious self-help groups and cults to write his script. There’s something about the group’s mixture of the sinister and the kitsch that feels uncomfortably real. Scenes of domineering manipulation and psychological conditioning are cribbed from Scientology and other real-world cults, making them feel grounded and fresh.
The brutal punishments that form part of the tenants’ ‘deconditioning’ are pretty bone-chilling, but the foray into torture-porn territory is mercifully brief. The film is much more interesting when it explores the cult itself and its attitudes to privacy, obedience an education.
1BR really leans into its low budget aesthetic. Naturally lit scenes, without any flashy editing tricks, lend the film a realistically grubby feel. This is a fairly effective way to undercut the cloying pseudo-utopia of the film’s plot. There is also some effective sound design, with some great effects that evoke the disjointed otherworldliness of extreme sleep deprivation.
All in all, 1BR is an interesting cult thriller that makes some bold creative choices. It is, however, a triumph of setting over character, making it more of an ‘interesting’ than truly compelling watch. It feels like it has something to say about our own world, but in the end feels as insular as the community it depicts.