Science fiction is at its best when it takes a crazy concept and applies it to real world issues, and that’s exactly what writer director Yoshio Kato does with 3FT Ball and Souls, a teeny tiny Japanese film filled with big ideas and even bigger heart.

[Ed’s note: This movie was screened at this year’s Fantastic Fest, which faced controversy after Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League rehired Devin Faraci, the former editor of Birth.Movies.Death who had been accused of sexual assault last year. Faraci has since stepped down, but reports of additional issues have surfaced. io9 is dismayed by the entire situation, and do not support the Drafthouse’s actions. However, we feel a responsibility to continue to review the films being screened at the event.]

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Four strangers meet on an internet message board and decide to commit suicide together. They aren’t allowed to offer any details about themselves or explanations about their decisions; they’re just supposed to show up and die by blowing up a massive firework, the “3FT Ball” of the title. But when they ignite it, the characters wake up the morning of the same day, and are forced to figure out what’s preventing their deaths... and why.

Kato plays with the time loop idea, slowly allowing the characters to reveal their true selves as they figure out how to deal with this impossible situation. The whole thing is played in a bunch of different ways—thrills, surprises, even laughs—as the four main characters begin to open up and discuss why they want to kill themselves.

For much of the movie, it’s never exactly obvious what Kato is shooting for. Is he just creating a mystery for mystery’s sake? Or is there a method to his madness? That uncertainty works in the film’s favor because we’re in the dark just as much as the characters. By the time those answers begin to be provided, the characters have grown exponentially, making their potential suicide even more tragic.

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With a few exceptions, 3FT Ball and Souls is mostly filmed in one room, with no visual effects. It’s a very small movie, but that intimacy allows the story and characters to really take center stage, and the story and characters work really well. Each person has very complex issues that are hard to understand personally, but in context, they make all the sense in the world.

The place the film stumbles most is realizing how far it goes to convey its message. This is only Kato’s second film and by the end it’s obvious he really wanted to make sure everyone knew what he was saying with the film, to the point where he’s practically screaming it. So it’s a bit disappointing that a story which has unfolded so beautifully for most of the film gets away from him through a Return of the King-style pile of endings.

For the most part, though, for a movie with a fascinating concept and huge potential, 3FT Ball and Souls delivers on enough of each to make it a rewarding experience.

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This was the international premiere for 3FT Ball and Souls. The film doesn’t yet have a US release date.

[Correction: The initial editor’s note was unclear that Faraci stepped down before one movie canceled its screening and Fest programmer Todd Brown quit. A link to a THR report on League was added as well.]