Whether in search of fame, fortune, sunshine, or simply a new start, outsiders like Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), the protagonist of writer-director David Marmor’s 1BR, continue to flock to Los Angeles. This steady influx of newcomers from around the world, alongside its impossibly sprawling layout, has contributed to the city’s somewhat deserving reputation as being an especially isolating metropolis. It’s also allowed L.A. to become a hotbed for cults, New Age fads, and self-help gurus, all promising an immediate sense of community and belonging that’s simply not ingrained in the DNA of the city.
Set entirely in that sort of generic tan stucco apartment complex that’s all too common throughout L.A., 1BR focuses on a fictional cult and how it’s able to hide in plain sight. Marmor brings a detail-rich specificity to his portrait of the inner workings of such groups, peppering the film with numerous references to the tactics used by nefarious yet legitimized sects like Scientology and NXIVM. This lends 1BR an authenticity as it follows the meticulous conditioning process endured by Sarah, a shy twentysomething looking to get far away from her father, Gus (Alan Blumenfeld), after catching him cheating on her dying mother.
Of course, Sarah’s new neighbors are all smiles at first, aggressively flooding her with offers of assistance and invitations to parties and BBQs. These early sequences are rather rough and hamfisted for the way they set up of the film’s characters, repeatedly hammering home just how ominous these overly friendly individuals are, including the complex’s ever-present manager, Jerry (Taylor Nichols), and the one-eyed creeper, Lester (Clayton Hoff), who’s a little too excited to give Sarah a copy of a book called The Power of Community.
But where 1BR is a bit lacking in its characterizations, it gives palpable expression to the sense of entrapment and hopelessness that grips Sarah and many of her neighbors. In a particularly grueling sequence, Sarah is locked in a room and forced to stand in a stress position leaning against a wall for as long as a nearby light is turned on. Cameras are installed in every corner, so there’s not only the problem of being physically trapped, but of having every movement scrutinized and every spoken thought listened to and recorded. Near the end of this sequence, 1BR takes a hard, uncomfortable turn into torture-porn territory, but it fortunately refocuses its attention on the methods of indoctrination that Sarah goes through in learning to accept how her new community works—and to her benefit once she submits to the cult’s demands.
As chilling as it is to see Sarah’s hands nailed to a wall after she falls from her stress position, the psychological manipulation that follows is perhaps even more unsettling. As her hopes of escape are dashed, she’s increasingly rewarded with freedom to roam about the complex and engage in the cult’s twisted, yet still rewarding, communal practices. Marmor’s writing can be rather blunt and unpolished at times, and the stiff performances drain the film of some of its potential for emotional resonance, but 1BR forcefully mines the terror that arises from a person feeling trapped and helpless. As it probes the pain that its characters have buried beneath a veneer of contentment, Marmor’s film reveals the horrific costs of the brainwashing that’s necessary to keep a hermetically sealed nightmare world running smoothly.