Tucker Harding — a scotch-chugging,chain-smoking writer of hard-boiled fiction and ballsy news reportage — is actually named Violet. A pretty woman who’s chipped away almost all vestiges of era-etiquette for her gender (her tale kicks off in 1953), she dresses in tailored suits, has both a glamorous girlfriend and a geeky male editor in love with her, and is blunt though compassionate in manner. What really defines Tucker, though, is her talent. Her creativity and intelligence are telegraphed in the way she draws on her cigarette, walks down the street and sits at her typewriter. She has the bearing of a woman who lives confidently in the intersection of heart and mind.

Even before the opening credits for her smart if overly dense feature debut, writer-director Hilary Brougher has given us a richly detailed sketch of this lead character, and has painted in a vivid backdrop. (The H-bomb looms as a palpable presence for Tucker, and plays a crucial role in kick-starting the plot.) One day she walks out of her apartment to buy coffee, only to suddenly drop into 1997 without a clue as to how or why she got there. Luckily she retains some bearings: She‘s deposited on the same New York block she lived on decades earlier, only now it’s scarred with graffiti, with techno and police sirens blaring. At that very moment, also in 1997, a struggling writer named Drew (Nicole Zaray) is deleting self-pitying prose from her computer. After junking her work, Drew pulls a Sylvia Plath and puts her head in the oven; the unexpected arrival of an ex-boyfriend saves her. Brougher frequently has familiar and unfamiliar characters bump into the two women writers, twisting the story in new directions. Isaac (James Urbaniak), Tucker‘s editor, makes such an appearance when he too falls into 1997, bringing with him the keys that will unlock the connections between Tucker and Drew.

Though far from inaccessible, The Sticky Fingers of Time demands that we pay close attention as it builds detail upon detail, slowly unraveling the webbed relationships in the film, from Tucker and Drew, to Isaac and the time-traveling assassins who’ve been sent to murder Tucker. But it‘s really Drew’s journey toward embracing her creative self — and Tucker‘s role in that process — that interests Brougher. On the surface, the film is a love story wrapped around a sci-fi murder mystery. At its core, it’s about the nature of creativity and courage — specifically female. Drew has freedoms that Tucker had to steal by cunning or subterfuge, by, for instance, writing under a masculine pseudonym. The younger woman is paralyzed and frightened, though, with nothing to say beyond her own navel-perch of despair. In discovering her connection to Tucker, Drew is positioned to find her own voice and purpose; she‘s learning to be the author of her own creative and “real” lives. For Tucker, the role of sister-mentor dovetails neatly into the act of self-preservation.

Tautly directed and full of strong performances, Sticky Fingers is shot in crisp black-and-white for its ’50s segments and color for the present. Still, for all her formal experimentation and political conjecture, Brougher maintains a wry sense of humor throughout. She never loses sight of the fact that no matter how technologically advanced society becomes, it will ultimately be ruled by machinations of the human heart. The film, in fact, suggests that poets and authors must embrace the struggle of producing their art in order to survive. In its frequent jumps across the time line, with the world and people in it shifting and colliding, with memory and emotional duress playing havoc with the two writers‘ psyches, the movie captures the creative process in a bottle. More important, it taps into the fears at the core of creation: the need to write yourself into history or to change history altogether, and the very real prospect of saving lives — or stopping erasure — with that creation.

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