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BFI London Film Festival 2023, Dispatch #3
In his second, illness-delayed dispatch from this year’s London Film Festival, Slarek goes forward and backward in time with two science-fiction tinted debut features, Michael Lukk Litwak’s MOLLI AND MAX IN THE FUTURE and Pablo Chea’s CROMA KID.

Lively Molli (Zosia Mamet, the talented daughter of David Mamet and Lindsay Crouse) is out for a ride one day when her vehicle is clipped by one driven by the nerdish Max (Aristotle Athari), which spectacularly crashes just a few seconds later. Max survives and Milli agrees to run him home, and in the course of the next few days the two hang out and become good friends. Could they end up romantically involved or does fate have different plans for them both?

This may read like meet-cute 101, and to a degree that’s exactly what it is, but with one oddly significant and engaging twist. True to its unfussily descriptive title, this story is set far into the future, and the vehicles that both Molli and Max are driving are not cars but personal spaceships. When Max’s home-built craft spins out of control and explodes, it propels the space-suited Max onto Molli’s windscreen with the force of a wayward bug. We’re just a couple of minutes into the film at this point, and this image had me laughing out loud. It wouldn’t be the last time I was given cause to do so.

The film is divided into chapters separated by captioned narrative gaps lasting anything from a “a very lonely” hour to several years as this intergalactic rom-com narrative unfolds. The first chapter is a belter, a wittily written (by first-time feature director Michael Lukk Litwak) and snappily performed montage of scenes in which the titular Molli and Max discover that the fact they initially seem to have little in common need not be a barrier to a rewarding friendship. Over the course of the 15 minutes that this chapter lasts, we get to know a lot about them both solely through the conversations that they with each other, which are so engaging that they never come across as the character-defining exposition that they technically are. And I quickly found myself liking these two at lot, and I mean really quickly, so much so that when this chapter is brought to an unexpected close by Molli’s sudden and delighted declaration that she’s leaving – having been selected by a demigod named Moebius (Okieriete Onaodowan) to join the Passionauts help defend the spirit realm (it all becomes clear later) – I empathised completely with the deep disappointment that Max tries gamely to suppress.

Molli and Max chat about life in the Future

It's five (galactic standard) years before they meet again, another chance encounter that sees them simultaneously jump into the back of the very same cab, and those years have really changed them. Molli has fully embraced the teachings of Moebius and developed crystal-enhanced magical abilities (“I’m a level seven space witch now!”), while the previously geeky Max now exudes oodles of sports-star cool, having followed his dream and become a champion Mecha fighter. Both seem happy for each other, but things take a sour turn when Molli reacts negatively to the news that Max is dating a sentient robot partner that he designed and built (“Doesn’t that make you, like, her dad?”), and when Max accuses Molli of being in a cult. They part on bad terms, and it’s another four years before a third chance meeting brings them together again, and with the aid of time travel helmets provided as while-you-eat entertainment at a local restaurant, they are able to share with each other precisely what unfolded since their last fateful meeting.

Speaking as someone who usually runs a mile from romantic comedies, I find it hard to pin down exactly what makes Molli and Max in the Future such a consistently charming and often joyful watch, especially as much of the film consists primarily just of two people conversing against a range of green-screened futuristic backdrops. The foundation is certainly there in Litwak’s often razor-sharp screenplay, where smartly amusing dialogue and acerbic exchanges evolve seamlessly into touchingly perceptive examinations of the bumpy ride that friendships between two mutually attracted people often go through. Litwak spreads his net wide here, a catch-all approach that risks losing focus and just occasionally comes close to doing so, notably in a TV game show to choose the next ruler of the galaxy that unsubtly (though, as it’s worrying starting to look, still topically) satirises the demented populism that catapulted someone as unsuitable as Donald Trump into the White House. When Litvak hits, however, he really scores, and there were so many touchstones that I recognised here from my own past relationship history and those of close friends. This is particularly true of the chapter when both Molli and Max strike up long-term relationships with individuals that even we can see that they are ill-suited to – so highly do they both value their friendship with each other that they avoid offering honest opinions on their respective partners for fear of jeopardising what they have. Been there, by any chance? I certainly have.

I’m guessing that Molli and Max in the Future was made on modest budget, and Litwak has taken the ‘talk is cheap’ indie mantra and brought it into the production-level home computer age, creating a range of striking futuristic backdrops and sets against which to seamlessly composite his actors. These include complex cityscapes that mix those of Metropolis and Blade Runner with a dash of Altered Carbon, CG landscapes and colourful starscapes, and background interiors built from digitally enhanced models. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes snippets included in the end credits roll had me aching to see the film land a special edition Blu-ray release some time in the (hopefully near) future, as its making looks to be almost as fascinating and as much fun as the film itself.

It’s hard not to smile at the nods made to past cinematic visions of a theorised future, a retrofit approach that melds forward-looking technology with past and present-day mechanics and design. Thus, Molli and Max revisit the past using helmets that look a little like half-finished prototypes for an early VR system, Mecha fighter battles play like extracts from a hyperactive CG anime, and Max rewatches recordings of his own fights to better his technique not on some holographic digital system, but VHS tapes. The two lead performances are a joy and key to my complete engagement with the title characters, and the care taken with the casting extends to a range to supporting characters whose personalities are established in a few economical seconds of screen time. This is particularly true of Paloma Garcia-Lee as Max’s hilariously annoying motormouth girlfriend Cassie, whose self-awareness extends only to her lightning-fast, overeager proclamation to Molli, “I know that I come across as really annoying, really like super-annoying, but I’m not as annoying as I used to be, I promise you that.” It’s one of many moments to treasure in this witty, touching, richly imaginative, and ultimately heart-warming film, one that, for all its futuristic settings and technology and its cheerful flirting with romantic cliché, has to be the most grounded and oddly believable love story I’ve watched in a good many years.


In an unspecified town in the Dominican Republic, a man named Emi (the film's co-writer and co-producer Israel Cárdenas) is warmly welcomed into an otherwise empty TV studio by its manager, Héctor Sepúlveda (Vicente Santos). This is the first time the two have met in several years, and Emi has brought with him two boxes of analogue broadcast video tapes, aware that Héctor is one of the few people who still has the equipment needed to play them. As he pushes each one in turn into the recorder and hits play, he tells the story of a strange and transformative period of his childhood. The film then flashes back – via some evocative close-up shots of the player and its internal workings and a nicely analogue video transition – to a time when the 12-year-old Emi (Bosco Cárdenas) shared a house with his parents, Brandon (David Maler) and Daniella (Nashla Bogaert), and his grandfather Lito (Jaime Pina). The adults are entertainers, and in one room of the house Lito has constructed a small studio consisting of a single video camera, a Betacam SP editing suite, and a vision mixer with wall-to-floor green-screen for chromakey effects.

OK, a technical pause here for those who grew up in the digital age and to whom the above means little. Having lost the battle to VHS to become the dominant home video system, the Betamax format was reinvented by Sony as Betacam, a professional-level system that used the same cassettes but produced far higher quality results, partly by running the tape at a higher speed, which restricted the running time of each tape to just 30 minutes. Betacam SP improved significantly on the original Betacam format, and became the industry standard for TV stations and production houses for over a decade, particularly with the introduction of larger cassettes and recorders, which increased the recording time to a far more practical 90 minutes. The term ‘chromakey’, meanwhile, was the RCA company trade name for the process that we now know simply as keying, but was originally done in-camera with the aid of a vision mixer and was nowhere near as refined as the tools we have on our desktop digital editing software today. Apologies to those for whom this is old news. Back to the story.

The family dress up for a green screen effect in Croma Kid

Brandon and Daniella are aspiring magicians who, along with Lito, previously had a minor success with a self-created and short-lived TV series titled Croma Kid. In it, all four family members comically faked world travels by costuming up and matting themselves against internationally recognised landmarks. Years later, they are planning to revive the show on a larger scale, in part to showcase their skills as chromakey-assisted magicians. Lito’s on board, but Emi has become increasingly bored with his parents’ shenanigans. “Why don’t you have a normal job and dress like a normal person?” he asks as his father walks him into school wearing shorts and an open dressing-gown that flaps in the wind. They’re met at the entrance by a teacher who comments on what is clearly the latest in a string of late arrivals on Emi’s part, and gently shakes her head in quiet despair as the ever-smiling Brandon cheerfully departs. It's here that my painful lack of knowledge of the locale left me confused as to why the Spanish that is spoken by everyone outside the school switches exclusively to French once within its walls. I’m sure someone will clear this one up for me. It’s also here, whilst waiting for his latest disciplinary meeting, that Emi meets 17-year-old Zoe (a captivating Solange Mongereau), with whom he gradually strikes up a friendship and to whom may he may be secretly attracted, an element of the story that is ultimately left teasingly unresolved.

When it turns out the hire of the studio and equipment required to relaunch Croma Kid is going to cost considerably more than the family can afford, Lito and Brandon go behind the more practical Daniella’s back and pay for it anyway with money that was earmarked for the mortgage payments on their house. The optimistic Brandon is convinced that the show will make them the money they need to pay off the mortgage, and initially furious with him though Daniella is, she eventually mellows and is once again on board. When they arrive at the studio and start filming, however…

Right, here's the thing. What happens next sees a drama that has so far played out as a gentle coming-of-age story move into a currently topical area of science fiction, and we’re 50 minutes into a 93 minute movie before this occurs. Theoretically, revealing it’s nature would thus count as a spoiler, yet what happens has been included in every one of the few single-sentence synopses I’ve seen of the film, including the one provided for its LFF screening. I’ve even seen one that was specific about the nature of the resulting mystery. Nonetheless, I’m still reluctant to reveal it, just in case, but will suggest that its role in the story is primarily metaphorical, the real focus being the impact it has on young Emi, how he responds to it, and the steps he feels compelled to take to put things right.

Croma Kid is an easily likeable, acutely observed and nicely edited family drama whose impact is softened just a tad by the too-familiar turf it treads and the more complex games that a couple of other recent movies of note (including a major award-winner) have played with the concept that I’ve avoided specifying. What ultimately gives the film its identity and its unforced charm is its effortlessly engaging adult characters (the eccentric Brandon is great fun, and who wouldn’t want a grandfather as smart and calmly supportive as Lito?), and a spot-on performance by young Bosco Cárdenas as Emi, whose secret experiments with the family home studio and understanding of the technology suggests that he is the one with a real future in the medium. The film also bristles with nostalgia for the days of analogue video, and having spent so many years working with such technology myself, it’s an aspect of the film I found it easy to warm to. It all builds to a metaphysical resolution and bookend sequence whose most touching moment was undercut a little for me by concern about the purgatory-like fate that one the characters seems to have been consigned to. I’m saying no more.

BFI London Film Festival 2023 logo
London Film Festival 2023 dispatch #3

Molli and Max in the Future poster
Molli and Max in the Future
USA 2023
93 mins
directed by
Michael Lukk Litwak
produced by
Kate Geller
Candice Kuwahara
Michael Lukk Litwak
Ben J. Murphy
Mallory Schwartz
written by
Michael Lukk Litwak
Zach Stoltzfus
Joanna Naugle
Alex Winkler
production design
Violet Overn
Zosia Mamet
Aristotle Athari
Erin Darke
Okieriete Onaodowan
Arturo Castro
Paloma Garcia-Lee
Matteo Lane
Michael Chernus

Croma Kid poster
Croma Kid
Dominican Republic 2023
92 mins
directed by
Pablo Chea
produced by
Israel Cárdenas
Laura Amelia Guzmán
Rafael Elias Munoz
written by
Pablo Chea
Israel Cárdenas
Israel Cárdenas
Pablo Chea
Israel Cárdenas
Fernando Henriquez
Grégoire Blanc
production design
Monica De Moya
Nashla Bogaert
David Maler
Yasser Michelén
Jaime Pina
Israel Cárdenas
Teo Terrero
Solange Mongereau
Vicente Santos

UK release dates
None specified as yet
review posted
15 October 2023

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