Think of French writer-director Léa Mysius’ “The Five Devils” as the distant cousin of Richard Kelly’s psychological thriller “Donnie Darko” with overtones of time travel, bullying, high school drama, and haunting visions. Newcomer Sally Dramé plays eight-year-old Vicky whose keen sense of smell tinges on the supernatural. With one quick whiff, our young protagonist is rendered unconscious only to awake in her mother’s past. Like a specter moving about undetected (almost), she discovers a secret about her parents that involves her aunt Julia, (Swala Emati) who occasionally catches a frightening glimpse of the young time traveler.

The track “Me and the Devil” by Soap&Skin plays during the opening credits in a scene that feels like a tribute to “The Shining” as a car travels towards a small village nestled below the French Alps. Music plays a significant role in Mysius’ film; Another similar trait to “Darko.”

It’s been 10 years since Julia (Emati) was forced out of the small Alpine community to serve a prison sentence for setting a fire that injured high school classmate Nadine (Daphne Patakia). The former pariah has returned to visit her brother Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), a local firefighter who is married to Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a swim instructor and former leader of the gymnastics squad that Julia and Nadine were members of when the tragedy occurred.

At the heart of the story written by Mysius and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, lies Vicky (Dramé) the eight-year-old biracial daughter of Jimmy and Joanne. In one of the film’s first scenes, she awakes from her sleep after seeing visions of her mother as a teenager standing in front of a burning building. Screams are heard in the background. Later when we revisit that moment in one of Vicky’s time traveling jaunts, we realize her supernatural gift may extend beyond the sense of smell.

Vicky’s olfaction is so keen that she can find her mother hiding in a forest while blindfolded. When Julia arrives, you sense a weird connection between her and Vicky (more on that in a moment). Joanne doesn’t want Julia to stay in their home. First, the townsfolk would be upset that she’s back and Nadine whose face is scarred from the fire, works with Joanne at the swimming facility, which would cause tension in the workplace. That doesn’t matter to Jimmy who won’t turn his sister away. On a side note, Jimmy and Joanne are in a loveless marriage.

The film’s foray into “Twilight Zone” territory begins when Vicky goes through her aunt’s purse and pulls out a small bottle (the liquid inside is never disclosed). She steals it with plans to whip up a concoction as Vicky has witchy impulses. However, one whiff of her aunt’s scent renders Vicky unconscious. She wakes up in the past, her mother’s, specifically Joanne’s teenage years way before Vicky was conceived. Is she dreaming? Not hardly. At least one person can see her, Aunt Julia, who screams in fright believing she is being haunted by a little girl. No one else can see Vicky so in a way she is a ghostly visitor.

Since Julia is the only one who can see Vicky, questions are raised. This happened in the past so, when Julia comes to visit does she recognize her young niece? Remember she’s been in lockup since high school and this is the first time she’s met the young girl, officially. When you begin thinking of the time travel implications it can send your head in a tizzy especially since Mysius doesn’t explain the hows and whys of the engaging concept. Pieces of the puzzle are clearly missing but wow, what a mystery.

What is evident, these characters are caught up in an existential loop as Vicky’s trips into the past uncover that her mother and Julia were lovers battling homophobia and racism. Also, her dad was interested in Nadine and so, had things worked out differently would she even exist? Would she be a different version of Vicky or is she controlling her own fate?

The time travel theme, a high school setting, scenes of Vicky waking up in the past not knowing where she’s at, and Julia encountering what she feels is a specter give off major “Donnie Darko” vibes. The two films feel spiritually connected and both are driven by a prevalent soundtrack which in “The Five Devils” is composed of tracks by the indie band Electrelane, Yvonne Fair, Hyperstory (L.A. musician Scott Blevins), and a significant scene that features Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

“The Five Devils” is hard to decipher but it’s visually stunning and mesmerizing at times. The cast is first-rate, especially Adèle Exarchopoulos of “Blue Is the Warmest Colour.” All the elements of a great psychological thriller are present, they just don’t come together as well as they should.

(3 stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center and Café (Dallas)

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.