In “Marjorie Prime,” actress Lois Smith plays Marjorie Lancaster, a woman suffering from dementia in the wake of her husband’s death. Still living in the couple’s attractively appointed seaside home — where she lives with her daughter Tess and son-in-law, Jon (Geena Davis and Tim Robbins) — Marjorie avails herself of all the interventions at her disposal, including medication, an occasional illicit cigarette with her nurse, and conversations with the departed Walter, whom she chooses to remember as a much younger man.
Because “Marjorie Prime” takes place in the not-too-distant future, Walter isn’t just a figment of her imagination: He’s a hologram — played by Jon Hamm with spot-on ethereality — that is continually being upgraded by the stories, anecdotes and snippets of information fed to him by Marjorie, Tess and Jon. As the drama assumes its modest but nuanced and enigmatic shape, it becomes clear that the question isn’t just how real Walter is, but how memories are elicited, edited and erased entirely to become an individual’s personal history.
Adapted by writer-director Michael Almereyda from Jordan Harrison’s play, “Marjorie Prime” has the sleek, self-assured lines of similarly themed recent films, most notably “Her” and “Ex Machina.” Like those speculative but eerily believable fictions, the futurism here is subtly understated. Rather than get caught up with gizmos and gee-whiz effects, Almereyda sets the narrative amid the familiar signifiers of blond wood, Scandinavian mid-20th-century furniture and other trappings of good taste and restraint. Shot in serene, silvery tones by Sean Price Williams (who gave “Good Time” its lurid, frenetic, neon buzz), “Marjorie Prime” succeeds in lulling the viewer into the title character’s own increasing sense of reassurance when the story takes its surprising turns, and the core concerns of the film — memory, the construction of identity and character, and the profound inscrutability of the Other — come into quiet but deeply affecting focus.
Anchored by a breakout performance by Smith — who played Marjorie in the 2014 Los Angeles stage production and a New York version the following year — “Marjorie Prime” receives a welcome shot of humor from Robbins, who imbues Jon with mordant, borderline angry wit. Davis’s turn as an unhappy adult child feels more stiff, but as the unspoken mysteries of the Lancaster family are gradually revealed, her reticence turns out to be a judicious and justifiable choice. Like “Dunkirk” and “A Ghost Story,” which came out this summer, “Marjorie Prime” is about our relationship with time, especially the fractured way we reconstruct the past.
Although not nearly as visually imaginative as those films, this talkier, more muted meditation offers its own intriguing insights into the illusions we create in the name of seeing ourselves and one another more clearly. The composer Mica Levi — who created the slashing string-infused soundscape for “Jackie” last year — here delivers another musical score bristling with impending drama. And “Marjorie Prime” doesn’t disappoint, with some mysteries being solved and others remaining tantalizingly elusive. As a sly chamber piece, it reassures and unsettles in equal, exquisitely calibrated measure. Viewers are left with the Faulknerian sense that, one day, the past won’t just be alive: It won’t even be past at all.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains very brief nudity and smoking. 98 minutes.