Joseph (James Nester) works obsessively on his passion project to develop a machine that can trigger happy memories and thus cure depression. He ropes in his more skeptical best friend Ralph (Steven Conroy) for a series of experiments involving deep hypnosis and regression therapy. Yet in the process Joseph neglects his troubled girlfriend Sam (Lauren Muraski). One day Sam disappears without a trace, prompting Joseph to embark upon a desperate search across Europe. It takes him from New York to the Netherlands, Belgium to Poland, Romania and beyond in a furtive quest not just for his lost love but the elusive nature of happiness.
For his feature debut indie one-man-band Armando Luis Alvarez (who wrote, directed, shot, edited and produced the film) explores themes similar to those Michel Gondry dealt with in the more mainstream if equally challenging Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In place of Gondry's playful cinematic magic tricks, Alvarez filters his philosophical preoccupations through a free-form road movie encompassing locations across Europe. Aspects of Engrams – which derives its title from the hypothetical means by which memory traces are stored – evoke early Wim Wenders as well as the dreamy musings of Terrence Malick. The quasi-science fiction conceit and super-erudite, overly self-aware characters also occasionally bring to mind Paddy Chayevsky's screenplay for Altered States ((1980) minus Ken Russell's hallucinogenic visual flourishes.
Central to the film is the question of whether happiness is simply a state of mind or something tangible we can truly quantify and ergo, take steps to recreate. From this springs the protagonist's gradual realization that what might be a happy situation for him does not necessarily apply to everyone, specifically his girlfriend. Alvarez's rambling screenplay eventually concludes it is no good dwelling in the past, what we need is to forge a brighter future, a statement that while poetic is not much different from that put forward by umpteen Hollywood romantic comedies. Engrams wavers from genuinely profound to first year film school pretension. Over the course of its over-long one hour and forty-three minutes the film often falls into the trap of telling the viewers things it ought to be showing them. Nonetheless while the quirky characters are too often inscrutable and the relationships hard to unravel, Alvarez's technique proves persuasive.
The film proves as much a travelogue as a drama. Filmed on location across an impressive range of countries, it offers an affectionate portrait of Europeans as kind, affable and helpful to a fault. Every character Joe meets seems instantly fascinated with his cat and mouse predicament with Sam and endlessly patient with his self-involved stories in a manner strangely reminiscent of the subplot involving the late Cory Monteith in the tween romance Monte Carlo (2011). This strains credibility but at least makes a welcome change from the more familiar xenophobia in American abroad thrillers like Hostel (2005). On the downside the film occasionally becomes somewhat akin to watching a stranger's holiday video and the oddball humour often falls flat. Actor James Nester is an impassioned, compellingly quirky lead though unfortunately the complexities inherent in the outwardly affable but sinister, possibly repressed homosexual Ralph seem beyond the reach of co-star Steven Conroy. Ultimately Engrams exhibits a level of ambition that is rare and laudable even when its awkward, non-linear storytelling proves too esoteric for its own good.