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Panic Fest 2023: The Artifice Girl

Image courtesy of Paper Street Pictures

In one key scene in Franklin Ritch’s superb new sci-fi drama, scientist Deena (Sinda Nichols) expresses her forlorn exasperation at the necessity of her testifying before congress that children have rights as individuals. Contextually, the debate is different, but it’s a powerfully topical image, as day after day, trans teenagers and their families fend off assaults on their rights by fear-mongering opportunists. Though the explicit subject of Ritch’s feature directing debut is artificial intelligence, this debate about how and when children should earn the right of self-determination looms large over The Artifice Girl, which is one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking films of recent years.

To start off with though, I should state unequivocally that this is not a horror movie. It’s science fiction and not especially dark or macabre in tone, if perhaps sometimes in subject matter. It does deal with themes of child sexual abuse, though this specter remains very much off-screen. It’s closest relative might be something like Ex_Machina, but even that is more tense and brutal than this is trying to be. The Artifice Girl is the next in a long line of films and TV shows that explores the concept of artificial intelligence, when it has been achieved, what form it could take, and what ethical debates will arise as a result. Few pieces of media wrestle with these ideas so directly or articulately though.

The Artifice Girl is about consent, but not necessarily sexual consent, rather consent in a more general fashion. Up to a certain age, parents need to make decisions for their children as their child’s brain is still developing and they need someone to protect them from their own fleeting, irrational impulses. However, there comes a time when any parent, legal or medical system needs to cede control back to the child, a time when we deem them old enough to make their own decisions, about who they sleep with, who to hang around with, which medical procedures to undergo, who to vote for, which hobbies to take up, whether to have dependents of their own, what to study, or whether to get that tattoo. When do we deem a person sufficiently self-aware to make those decisions and on what evidence and reasoning do we base that decision? In The Artifice Girl, these contemporary debates play out in tandem with the more literal and hypothetical onscreen debate, the one about the rights of self-determination given to an artificial intelligence, one who happens to look like a nine year old girl.

The girl in question is Cherry (Tatum Matthews), created by child abuse survivor Gareth (played by Ritch himself) as an automated online avatar for entrapping predators into revealing identifying information that he can anonymously pass on to the authorities. Obviously it would be unethical to ask a child to subject themselves to posing as bait for online predators, but as a near-seamless self-maintaining chat-bot, Cherry can play the part convincingly. All this we learn in retrospect as Gareth’s anonymity breaks down and he’s hauled in for questioning by Deena and her colleague Amos (David Girard), who hope to interrogate Gareth’s methods and eventually, to use Cherry to entrap criminals themselves.

The film unfolds in three near-equal sections, all lengthy dialogue scenes with at most four characters and each one set in a single location. This format puts a tonne of weight on the performances of the core cast and the dramatic strength and insight of Ritch’s script. Despite a couple of missteps here and there, I’m very happy to say that both prove up to the task of maintaining a feature film and keeping it not just engaging, but truly gripping throughout. Ritch does a phenomenal job of not only putting all the right questions into the mouths of his characters, but pacing his reveals incredibly carefully, ensuring the audience a steady feed of dramatic revelations and inversions, each one coming at just the right moment to keep a consistent sense of momentum.

Gareth and Cherry are each described in terms of their duplicity, and unraveling the dense maze of deceptions each is playing on those around them is a strong hook to ensnare the viewer in the opening third. Deena may like to think she’s “the spider” and we’re in her web, but this could hardly be further from the truth. Everyone knows more than we initially think they do and the shifts in power dynamics this gives their conversations keeps them enthralling.

The performances too are really solid throughout with each performer convincingly comfortable with their jargon-heavy dialogue, which is always delivered with enough conviction that it remains coherent and comprehensible. Ritch himself is excellent as the inventor who’s often more cold, unfeeling and rational than his computerized creation, Nichols has perhaps a tougher task as the business-minded bad cop struggling with her self-doubts, and Girard provides a much-needed sympathetic heart to the group. The real discovery here though is young Matthews, whose performance is utterly convincing first as a real synthetic personality, and incrementally as an increasingly alive and all-too human young girl. The movie wouldn’t work if she weren’t as good as she is, but she knocks it out of the park.

There are a few moments where the writing feels a little forced or the line reads feel a tiny bit off, but for a film of its type and budget, these occasions are impressively rare and become easy to ignore once you’re absorbed in the plot. It might feel too wordy for some, but when you have limited resources, leaning into the writing is a good place to go. Though I know that it’s not exactly a hundred percent accurate, I’ve often said that whatever your production costs, a good script costs as much or as little as a bad one, and The Artifice Girl has a very good script. It raises all the right arguments and more impressively, finds dramatically satisfying answers for them. It might be telling you what a film like Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell manages to show you, but it still covers a lot of ground with admirable rigor and stays consistently compelling the whole time it does.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory, and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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