A Glitch in the Matrix. Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures Credit: Magnolia Pictures

A Glitch in the Matrix (screening via Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and the Virtual Roxie) is far from perfect. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film features interview subjects decked out in silly and distracting digital disguises, unsafe levels of Elon Musk (scientists are still trying to determine if any level is safe), and a heavy reliance on scenes and themes drawn from one of the most overrated films of all time, The Matrix.

Reservations and Elon Musk aside, however, Ascher’s thoughtful (and thought-provoking) feature is still well worth your time. Posing the question “are we living in a simulation?”, the film brings man’s search for meaning into the 21st century with its heady blend of Philip K. Dick, Plato, Descartes, and — of course — Keanu Reeves.

Though humans have been asking themselves “what is the meaning of life?” for centuries, A Glitch in the Matrix frames the question a little differently: what if we’re not only the playthings of a higher intelligence, but most of the people we meet on a daily basis are actually ‘non-player characters’ — the background noise that ‘real’ characters interact with in order to progress through a video game?

The film also features fascinating segments about ‘The Matrix defense’ — exemplified here by convicted killer Joshua Cooke, who murdered his parents on the assumption that they weren’t ‘real’ (or would perhaps re-spawn video game style), and something called The Mandela Effect, a mass delusion that Nelson Mandela died in prison. If you’re a video-gamer, think of these as intriguing side quests.

A Glitch in the Matrix sadly doesn’t touch on the political implications of all this magical thinking, now rampant in our age of QAnon and the Steele Dossier, and it barely grazes the overarching mystical and spiritual aspects of its topic. Never mind: there’s more than enough here to keep you thinking long after the effect of the red pill has worn off.

‘Small Time’ and ‘Notturno’

Small Time. Photo: Courtesy Niav Conty Credit: Niav Conty

Screening as part of this year’s SF Indiefest (about which, more next week!), Small Time is the story of Emma (Audrey Grace Marshall), the tempest-tossed child of a heroin-addicted mother and a PTSD-stricken father haunted by nightmares from his wartime experiences in Iraq. Written and directed by Niav Conty, the film — set in rural Pennsylvania — follows Emma as she shuttles between troubled households.

Whether helping a virtual stranger cook heroin or baking cookies for her extended family, Emma’s faith in the deeply flawed adults in her life rarely falters. Marshall is outstanding as the sunnily disposed innocent grasping for  the stability offered by Christ (whose body and blood she reluctantly but stoically ingests at the local Catholic Church) and an extremely unreliable tooth fairy. Throughout her travails she’s ably supported by a very handsome cat named Ace.

Deeply troubled they may be, but Small Time’s adults are far from one-dimensional villains. While Mom Jessie (Dominique Johnson) is addicted to junk supplied by boyfriend Rick (Holter Graham), both try to do their best for Emma. Dad Lonnie (Kevin Loreque) is subject to fits of insensate rage but desperately tries to learn how to love his daughter, while devout grandmother Sadie (Maria Hasen) relies on Jesus to bring calm to her troubled family. The film concludes on a redemptive grace note that renders the preceding 100 minutes a journey worth taking.

Finally, if you were impressed by Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 documentary Fire at Sea you’ll likely appreciate his latest, Notturno, available via the Roxie. I’m not a Rosi fan— I find his brand of largely contextless film-making distancing and cold — but admirers will be impressed by this concatenation of scenes (some of them clearly staged) from the war-torn Euphrates basin.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...