(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Eight people in one room are competing for the same great job and must take an exam to find who gets it. They are told they have eighty minutes to answer just one question. But after the exam starts, they find out they are not given the question. The hardest part of the exam is to figure out what is the question being asked of them. And the ninth person working on this puzzle will be the viewer. First-time director Stuart Hazeldine knows how to hold the audience's attention. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

[EXAM will premiere exclusively on Video on Demand under the IFC Midnight label beginning in July.]

I have a fondness for puzzles and for puzzle films. I am not talking about mystery films, though I guess those really are a breed of "puzzle film." I like the kind of film that asks an abstract question, and then lets the viewer solve the problem along with the film's characters. Vincenzo Natali's CUBE is a puzzle film. A group of people is placed in a very unfamiliar environment, a set of cubical rooms each of which leads to other cubical rooms, some of which have deathtraps. The characters have to figure out the rules of moving from cube to cube. In Luis Piedrahita's and Rodrigo Sopena's FERMAT'S ROOM, mathematicians are put in a room and given mathematics problems. If they do not get the answers the room starts closing in ready to crush them. This is the ultimate mathematics test pressure. The viewer is essentially invited to solve the same problems.

EXAM is a new puzzle film in which eight applicants compete with each other for a near perfect job. They must take a test and the person who does the best wins the job offer. But passing the qualifying exam will not be easy. The applicants are put in a room and told they have eighty minutes to answer just one question. These are the inflexible rules: They are not allowed to talk to the guard proctoring the exam; they are not allowed to leave the room; they are not allowed to spoil their test paper. So far, not so bad. Then comes the kicker. Each sits at a small desk, and turns his/her paper over to see the question only to find it a blank sheet. Without being told what the question is they have eighty minutes to figure out what it is and then to answer it. There are four women and four men from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. How they go about trying to solve the problem and what their approaches say about them is ultimately more interesting than the solution to the problem they have been given.

Their prospective job will require analytical skills and superb reasoning. And the exam is meant to test those qualities. They have to decide a strategy for what degree to cooperate with each other and to what degree do they should be looking out for themselves. This is a story of trust and betrayal. The approaches to solving the problem speak about the participants and go far afield of simple logical reasoning. You follow them through their eighty minutes in near-real time, adding to the tension.

As in the other puzzle films above, EXAM does not need a large budget. Virtually the entire film takes place in one room. There are only ten actors and only nine who speak. The same story could have been done as a stage play with very few changes. The primary actors are generally experienced with a few films, but are far from familiar faces. The cinematography and the editing seem both to be well done, though perhaps not as challenging as a greater variety of environments might post. The film is done very well on what could well have been a very modest budget.

On his first film as director Stuart Hazeldine also writes the screenplay and co-produces. Few first-time directors can wear all three hats and have a good film as a result. Hazeldine is an exception. The film does have some violence and some fringe science fiction, but neither are really essential to the story. Mostly this film is just an engaging brainteaser. I rate EXAM a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. If you want to solve the puzzle, play close attention to the ground rules.

Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1258197

What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/exam/

                                      Mark R. Leeper
                                      Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper