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'Altered Minds' dreams up a good mystery with sincere performances but shallow plot

'Altered Minds' dreams up a good mystery with sincere performances but shallow plot
C.S. Lee portrays adopted son Harry whose nightmares force him to confront a possible dark past.

The cinematic equivalent of a TV "bottle episode," the edgy family drama "Altered Minds" takes place almost entirely in and around a house where a dying man's grown children have gathered to say goodbye. A good mystery and earnest performances keep the movie lively, though the confined location and limited plot ultimately make the end product feel paltry.

Judd Hirsch stars as psychiatrist and humanitarian Nathaniel Schellner, renowned for his work with war orphans — five of whom he and his wife adopted. As his kids help him through his final days, troubled son Tommy (Ryan O'Nan) shows up and accuses Schellner of hiding the real reason for his interest in refugees: because he's been conducting mind-control experiments on them for decades.

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Tommy's complicated conspiracy theory takes up the bulk of "Altered Minds," as the old man offers plausible explanations while the siblings squabble over how to interpret the odder parts of their shared past. These are the best scenes in the film, when everything's ambiguous and the Schellners deal with the common feeling that there must be some secret reason why they're unhappy.

But while "Altered Minds" opens with a John Carpenter-style font in the credits, it lacks the intensity or suspense to live up to it. Writer-director Michael Z. Wechsler falls into the indie film trap of substituting backstory for story, with characters spending more time talking about what happened in the past than advancing the action.

And once all the pieces of the puzzle snap together, the picture barely seems worth the bother.

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"Altered Minds."

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.

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