A review requested by Nathaniel Winer, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

If we lived in a healthier era for romantic comedies, I might not have found TiMER quite so fetching; but we don't, so I did. The film, which is to date the only feature made by writer-director Jac Schaeffer, is a little bit stiff and over-eager to keep clarifying every bit of its plot; it also has a rather distressing, tin-eared ending. But I actually don't think I care. It's immensely likeable and ingratiating, a smart little bit of speculative fiction & social satire that plays like Black Mirror made by the world's most reliable optimist. And though I'm not going to talk about this quite yet, it has a superb cast, from "oh, I know who that person is" on down to "nope, I definitely don't know who that is, but now I want to". And while I don't think that being in possession of a good cast has ever been the solitary reason for a great film, it sure doesn't hurt.

The film is part of the grand tradition of indie sci-fi that adds one solitary twist to an otherwise normal world. The 2009 film is set in the not-too-distant future (2015 or 2016 seem to fit the evidence best) of a past that started evolving in a different direction from our own right around the turn of the millennium. In this alternate version of America, everybody - or at least everybody in the urban centers of note - has come to rely on products called TiMERs, little digital wristbands that get stapled right onto your body and plunge their tiny little sensors into your bloodstream. For reasons that are sort of alluded to but probably best waved away with good ol' "because Science!", TiMER researchers discovered a chemical in the human body that can exactly predict, to the day, when somebody will meet their One True Love. As long as that One True Love is also wearing a TiMER, the user is wearing a countdown to the day they meet their great lover - not necessarily the day they'll actually fall in love.

The details are nonsensical, of course, but TiMER is so obviously a fable that I think it would be awfully pointless to grouse about it. What it cares about isn't the sci-fi conceit per se, but the questions it opens up: what would happen if you could tell straightaway whether someone was your One True Love? What the fuck even is a One True Love? Without ever being quite explicit, the whole thing is a lightly critical gloss on internet dating - that marvelous tool for making romance more about efficient matching than the wild unpredictability of hormones and fluids - coming down largely on the side of "that would be bad", though it's very much not a polemic. Rather, it simply notes that, given this kind of technological ability to make dating more about math and science than body and soul, some people would make relatively healthy decisions, some would not, and everybody would fall into a somewhat shrill, mechanistic idea of what "romance" means.

To flesh this out, the film settles upon a pair of step-sisters - one of them is the obvious lead, but it's as a duo that they make the most impact. Oona (Emma Caulfield) is an orthodontist on the verge of turning 30, with a TiMER that has no readout - meaning that her future partner hasn't gotten one installed yet, meaning that Oona lives in a perpetual neurotic state of doubt. Steph (Michelle Borth), has over 5000 days to go on her TiMER, and freed by the knowledge that she'll be single into her 40s, has embraced the life of a sexual libertine. They're sort of the yin and yang of possible responses to TiMER technology, though the film never presents it as schematically as that; mostly, they're just two people who work tremendously well as accidental sisters and best friends, supporting each other and not-so-silently judging in between all of the support.

Somewhere along the way, Oona is driven to extremes of despair (her 14-year-old half-brother gets his TiMER installed and learns he has all of 3 days to wait until meeting his true love), and decides to follow Steph's path of fucking for fucking's sake - we are assured that this is very rare, maybe even aberrant behavior in this society, which suggests a somewhat dubious understanding about human libidos, but okay. Thus she hooks up with the substantially younger Mikey (John Patrick Amidori), a wannabe musician and grocery story cashier. Wouldn't you know, but given the sure and certain knowledge that this isn't The One, Oona ends up having a really great time with Mikey, and they start falling for each other. Unfortunately for them, a male character has just entered the film, and narrative economy informs us that he's very, very likely going to get a TiMER installed and just like that, Oona's long-blank display will start its countdown...

It doesn't entirely work as a script - the concept is a little too high, honestly, and it's one of those sci-fi worlds where the characters obsessively and exclusively talk about the single thing that minimally differentiates their world from our own - but it is splendid as a character piece. Schaeffer's writing errs on the side of fascinated generosity for most of the characters - the big exception is Oona's mother Marion (JoBeth Williams), played as a cheerful idiot who embodies most of the things TiMER stakes a claim, however modest, against - with Oona, Steph, and Mikey quickly coming across as fully-realized without being fussy about it, and also being just so damn pleasant to spend time with. The film has some sharp satiric edges, about the myopia of technologically-aided dating, about the deep-set racism of inclusive liberals, about how cosmopolitan people latch onto new technology for the sake of its newness. But that's secondary. More than anything, TiMER is all about placing a few really engaging, fun characters in our path, and letting us spend time with them.

And now I get to talk about the cast, of whom Caulfield especially is nothing short of a treasure. After having given my favorite performance playing my favorite character on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it never actually occurred to me to follow where Caulfield went, and the answer appears to be that she didn't go much of anywhere: a lot of one-time guest appearances on reasonably popular shows, a few movies nobody has ever seen. And that is a god-damn shame, because based on this performance, she could easily have a great career as a romcom lead, if only we still had an industry where "romcom lead" was a viable, sustainable niche, the way it was in the 1930s or 1990s. She's instinctively likable, which is no little thing, playing dejection and annoyance and despair as sympathetic little quirks rather than wearying hang-ups. I think that Oona, as a real-life friend, would probably be quite a drag to be around. But as given life by Caulfield, she's winning and friendly and so easy to root for - something about the self-deflating sarcasm that the actor is able to pull out on the spot, not always where you expect it to be.

Caulfield's the unambiguous best in show, but there's not a single weakness in the cast. Borth would be the clear standout in many a fine ensemble: her timing is impeccable and her ability to shift from "I'm a chilly, insincere hipster with no real feelings" to "I care about you, my sister, with a deep and intense level of love" without either extreme feeling inauthentic, is excellent. Caulfield and Borth have phenomenal chemistry - as cute as Caulfield and Amidori are together, it's really not even close to who makes for the best screen duo - and watching these two characters bounce miseries and wry humor off of each other for twice as long as the film's tidy 99 minutes still wouldn't have gotten old.

So with all that, I find myself wondering why I couldn't go for the extra half-star. The whole thing is a soap-bubble, is part of it: TiMER makes no claims on anything other than being a charming experience that makes you think for just exactly the length of time its onscreen, which isn't great for a romcom and is actively bad for sci-fi. It's also really not very much to look at - the TiMERs are a neat bit of design, silently speaking to the evolution of techie toys over the 21st Century, but otherwise it's just another slightly overlit movie shot in Los Angeles. All that being true, though, the film is completely delightful: a little piece of fancy candy for romantic comedy fans, and a film that strikes me as being almost impossible - or at least very hard - to really dislike.