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Gray Matter (2023) Review

Do you remember a reality show called Project Greenlight? Filmmakers would vie to get their films approved, and the show would document the filming. The only film it produced that I remember was Feast. But somebody must have liked it because it’s been rebooted as Project Greenlight: A New Generation, and Gray Matter is the first film the new version has spawned.

Ayla (Jessica Frances Dukes, Organ Trail, Ozark) is planting bombs on a building when one of her co-conspirators pleads with her to wait, but before that can go any farther the cops show up. After a brief chase, they’re cornered and Alya suddenly reveals she has telekinetic powers and kills the cops. That’s followed by text giving us the definition of Psionic, a person with psychic abilities. We’re also told their existence remains a secret.

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Fifteen years later Ayla is still in hiding, she also has a 16-year-old daughter Aurora (Mia Isaac, Don’t Make Me Go, Not OK) who has inherited her mother’s powers. Her mother keeps her out of sight, homeschooling her, teaching her to use her powers, and forbidding her to leave the house or make friends. Of course, that isn’t going to stop a teen, and she sneaks out only to very publicly lose control of her powers.

This attracts the attention of Derek (Garret Dillahunt, Army of the Dead, Braven), who happens to be a government agent, and she ends up in what he claims is a “school for young people like herself”place designed for people like us”. But you’ll be excused if you don’t believe he’s the next Professor X, even if he has a shaved head.

If this sounds like a mashup of The X-Men, Firestarter, and Carrie, you’re not far wrong. Gray Matter feels like the results of a focus group study on creating a superhero franchise. There’s the troubled teen with mysterious powers, her parent with similar powers and a dark past, and mysterious government agents with hidden agendas toward those with powers. And to cap it all off, there’s some hidden history between Ayla and Derek.

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Not only is Gray Matter pure, generic Superheroine Origins 101, but it’s also slow, lifeless, and fairly predictable. Aurora proves smarter than the folks running the institution, her mother searches for her, and Derek turns out to be less benevolent than he appears. We’ve seen, and read, it all before.

Apart from the by the numbers plotting, Gray Matters also suffers from another major issue with its script, this one centring around Ayla and her relationship with her daughter. We’re not given any real reason why she was trying to blow up the building, or why she killed those people until literally the closing minutes of the film. That makes it hard to sympathize with her on any level, and makes her daughter’s defence of her seem off as well.

The way she treats her daughter, constantly moving, and keeping her isolated with no friends or contacts besides her is also shitty. It’s the same as one of the biggest problems I had with Hellbender, it looks more like a trafficker and their victim than a mother/daughter relationship. And then in both cases, the mothers freak when the girl disobeys them out of a sheer need for human contact. Maybe if they had been honest with their daughters and told them the truth of the situation, things wouldn’t have gone the way they did in either film.

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I haven’t seen the new version of Project Greenlight yet, but from what I’ve read, there were problems getting rewrites done on the script as it was going into production. That’s certainly a common enough problem, but one would think, if you got a chance like this you would be making the most of it. But director Meko Winbush, making her first feature after a couple of shorts, and writer Philip Gelatt (The Spine of the Night, They Remain) come up well short, and it would have taken more than a few rewrites to fix the problems with Gray Matter’s script.

The result while not as horrible as it could have been is a dull slog that makes eighty-seven minutes seem like twice as long. Maybe it should have been worse, then I might at least have gotten some unintentional laughs out of it.

Gray Matter and Project Greenlight: A New Generation are available to stream on Max where available. If you’re looking for something similar, but hopefully better, FilmTagger can suggest a few titles.

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