Tyler Cole’s hypnotic debut “Philophobia: or the Fear of Falling in Love” is a startling relationship nightmare from a promising new filmmaker. Under the genre guise of psychological horror, audiences witness the less overt side of male toxicity: emotional unavailability. Damien Booster, played with aloof sincerity by Aaron Burt – who also wrote this character study – is a prominent Los Angeles podcaster with an extreme lack of self-awareness when it comes to sabotaging relationships. His girlfriend of six months, Danielle (Emily Pearse), is lulled into his web of charming complacency, but soon realizes their alleged “good communication” dynamic is a farce.
When Danielle requests Damien’s presence at a brunch where her mother will be in attendance, he shuts down and sidesteps the opportunity to meet a potential future in-law. Naturally, this enrages Danielle to the point of ending their dating honeymoon phase before it goes any deeper. When it comes to diving into love, Damien prefers to remain in the shallows.
Damien represents a microcosm of male self-involvement, so focused on his own immediate goals, urges, or hesitations that everyone else is reduced to an obstacle or a conquest. “Philophobia” even begins with Damien’s behavioral ignorance as he frightens Danielle when they first meet by chasing her to return her purse without first announcing his intentions. Although the opening sequence leads audiences to believe Danielle is the main lead, switching gears and focusing on Damien’s inert emotional state turns out to be the more intriguing conflict. Like Lupita Nyong’o in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Damien is both protagonist and villain of his personal narrative.
Matters get more disturbing when Damien’s best friend Alan (David Lengel) comes to town to celebrate a Bachelor weekend in Hollywood before proposing to his girlfriend. Damien’s recent breakup has him self-medicating with movies and alcohol, toward which he hilariously demonstrates more sensitivity than he does his human interactions. Alan’s adventurous weekend is shelved thanks to Damien’s pity party, and when Damien does eventually go out, he leaves behind Alan for one-night stands that nearly turn disastrous. Damien’s own apartment becomes a haunted house of apparitions representing a secret past that chains him to burden of former mistakes and ruination.
The entrancing blue filter of Tom Meredith’s cinematography creates a labyrinth of sinister awakening that extends beyond Damien’s living quarters. Ghouls and monsters conjured by Damien’s psyche are prone to jumping out and further removing him from his sanity. Cole’s effective mise-en-scene entrenches the film with phantasmagorical mood that’s comparable to the hellish reds of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives.” With a sumptuous color palette, “Philophobia” will leave viewers viscerally intoxicated despite the purposeful mental scarring.
This genre hybrid occasionally falls prey to blatant obvious manipulating. For example, it’s much easier to root for Damien’s rehabilitation and growth when surrounded by obnoxious individuals that include douchebag neighbors and psychotic binge-drinkers infringing on his space. Furthermore, it’s a shame that the audience doesn’t spend more time with Danielle. Emily Pearse is such a gifted actress when it comes to relaying conflicting feelings that vacillate between self-respect and romantic gambling. It’s almost tragic that the film doesn’t equally pay her mental fragility much exploration, but perhaps a follow-up from her perspective would remedy this void á la Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her.”
Regardless, “Philophobia: or the Fear of Falling in Love” floors you by its psychological vulnerability. With an ending that you leaves you on a maniacal high, this first feature by a talented young auteur validates what most have suspected about straight white men who forget there’s a whole world beyond themselves.