In a marvelous decade for low-budget indie sci-fi, the writing-directing team of [Aaron] Moorhead & [Justin] Benson still stand out for making some of the most offbeat genre films out there. They've gone-three-for-three now on films that start out as a low-key character dramas about two people who like each other a lot but are in some critical way hurting each other, and after about 50 minutes suddenly rip off the mask to reveal that they've been grand tales about impersonal cosmic horrors all along. Except that they still remain low-key character dramas, it's just now the background has changed from "uninflected observational realism" to "from the pages of Weird Tales". It's an approach that has not yet yielded an uninteresting film, though it's also demonstrated a pretty clear upper limit of quality: 2014's Spring (a marvelous film hiding under an acutely flavorless title) is their high-water mark, and even that is a film that's as much great for its "oh, I see what you were going for with that!" triumphs as its actual success.

The point being, here we are with The Endless; if it is not Moorhead & Benson's best film, it is at least their most ambitious. The film is the story of a pair of brothers, played by the two filmmakers and sharing their first names, who escaped from a Heaven's Gate-esque UFO death cult ten years ago, when younger brother Aaron was but a teenager; it is quickly demonstrated that the escape was thanks entirely to Justin, who saw the dark loomings of the cult's beliefs while Aaron has only foggy memories of happiness and fun times (which seems more consistent with him having been around eight or nine years old rather than 16 or 17). At any rate, they've both settled into a small life of scraping by on the disability money they get from being treated for cult-related post-traumatic stress disorder, content to assume that all the people they knew from back in the day have long since done away with themselves. This makes it quite a surprise when they receive a video from cult member Anna (Callie Hernandez), who is certainly not dead at all and seems surrounded by not-dead people. This is enough to call for a trip to good ol' Camp Arcadia, much more due to Aaron's wishes than Justin's, and as the brothers travel into the California hills and forests of their youth, the more that things get... odd. Odd enough to raise the possibility that the cult's internal mythology is nowhere near the bullshit that Justin has maintained that it was, all these years.

That's it for plot synopsis, because a large part of the fun of The Endless lies in seeing how it develops this oddness, and whether it will justify its foreboding H.P. Lovecraft epigraph at the start (the answer to the latter question: not really. The film's mysteries aren't really horrific, and not in line with Lovecraft's cosmology; I get that Clark Ashton Smith doesn't have the same kind of name recognition, but he'd have been a much better match for the film's themes and content, not to mention its wild Californian setting). To be entirely blunt about it, I find the film's complicated science-fiction conceits a bit underwhelming. Without wishing to give anything away, it does one of the easily-affodable things that super-low-budget sci-fi films can do, and have done, and while I'm happy that it was done in a different way than some of its most obvious precursors, there's a distinct whiff of "oh yeah, I saw that movie too" that's not present in their earlier films. Also, and this is certainly the more legitimate complaint, the science fiction elements take so much effort to explain that the film has to lay the characters to the side for a bit. This was not a problem with the filmmakers' 2012 debut feature, Resolution (to which The Endless proves to be an unadvertised sequel, so much so that I wonder how easy it is to parse the new film at all if one hasn't seen the original - both films are considerably deepened by the connection), and it was actively, self-consciously averted by Spring.

And the thing is: character drama is what these filmmakers do best, and they in fact do it very well, and The Endless is maybe the best they've ever done it. Directors playing characters named after themselves in low-budget indies is a conceit that is always going to get my defenses turned up to 100%, but it turns out that both Benson and Moorhead are pretty gifted actors. Their portrayal of a semi-functional sibling relationship is honestly terrific, particularly Benson's perpetual tendency to almost visibly hold himself back from just grabbing Moorhead and carrying him off to safety. The script is also a pretty fine depiction of a very particular and by no means universal sibling dynamic, but one that feels universal, somehow: the older brother who just wants them to be safe and boring, versus the young brother who very clearly trusts his half-baked memories more than than he trusts Justin's apocalyptic stories, but lacks the fully-formed self-confidence to do anything about it.

The film is never better than when it foregrounds these two, which does make it annoying when it does other things: the cult-turned-microbrewery is a fascinating place, with its smiling hippie-with-an-authoritarian heart leader Hal (Tate Ellington) providing a really great foil to Justin's dubiousness and Aaron's enthusiasm, but The Endless is doing way too many other things to really care about the dynamics of small communities living off the grid. It's just the vaguely and then less-vaguely creepy place where ominous atmosphere happens, and the characters, however well-acted, are ultimately just another variation on the suburbanites of Stepford.

That being said, when it goes fully into its sci-fi mindfuckery, it somehow becomes more about its characters than when it's a cult mystery: I think it's the difference between "what the hell is going on?" and "when are Justin and Aaron going to figure out what the hell is going on?", the latter of which is much more dramatic and active, and doesn't simply devolve into a request for the viewer to keep notes and build a flowchart. It also, to be fair, is very solid mindfuckery: one thing that Moorhead & Benson have been persistently good at is allowing an uncanny, weird mood to seep into their psychological realism, and they've certainly never done that better than in the CGI-sweetened landscapes of impossible physics and wrong geography. Plus, Moorhead's cinematography is sufficiently hazy and desaturated to cast an aura of dreaminess over the whole movie: it feels like a report of a memory almost as much as a document in real time. And given the film's obsession with the question of how much truth lies within our memories and the self-serving narrative we construct from those memories, this diffusion of reality ends up being thematically appropriate as much as it's interesting to look at. It's too weird, too small, and ultimately too incomplete at all the things it's trying to do for The Endless to get anything like my full recommendation, but fans of intellectually striving "little" sci-fi movies could do a whole lot worse.