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NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Richard
Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore), a moderately well to do book editor, is struggling to come to terms with the death of her young son, Sam. Her therapist, Dr. Jack Munce (Gary Sinise) is helping her by getting her to limit the amount and number of times she visits her son's room. We see Telly visit the room and say his name into the mirror. She lovingly handles his baseball glove and looks through the photo albums and watches the videotapes. Her workspace has a beautiful framed photo of the happy family.
There are news clippings in the albums, and we piece together the story of how her son and several other children died when their small plane crashed on the way to a summer camp. Telly relives the moment over and over again of her son boarding the plane, happy and laughing.
Telly's husband, Jim, is being as patient as he can, but there are definite signs of stress. Telly is moody and distant, and one night she wanders over to a park and runs into Ash Correll, a retired NHL player, whom she finds sitting on the children's swingset in the park. He is also clearly inebriated.
"I came here hoping to run into some swingers," he says. Telly speaks to him as though she knows him, speaks of his daughter Lauren and how they have this shared loss, since Lauren was also on the plane.
Ash is confused. He says he's never met Telly, he has no daughter.
Telly writes it off to his drinking.
The next day, Telly has trouble locating her car. She walks to the spot where she parked it, only to find a helpful young man sitting in his car. He suggests to her that maybe she parked somewhere else, that memory can play tricks. He points across the street and there is her car!
Later, she is working on her new editing assignment, and she opens a box containing a film strip from a photo booth. There are pictures of her with Sam, he's making cute faces. She takes the key to his room out of the box and goes there. On arriving, she is horrified to find all of her photo albums empty, nothing but blank pages! The videos have been erased. Running to the living room, she finds the image from the framed photo no longer contains the picture of her son, just her and her husband!
She is furious. She confronts her husband, accusing him of removing all traces of her son from their life to get her to let go of the loss. Her therapist comes over and reveals that he has been treating her, not for grieving but for hallucinations and psychosis. The Paretta's have no son! Telly screams and grabs the film strip, announcing that her husband forgot one! But when they look at the pictures, they are of Telly and her husband.
Terrified and angry, Telly runs out of the house. She goes to Ash's apartment and he's in a drunken stupor. She ends up spending the night there while he is passed out. That morning she is making eggs for him and they talk. She is trying to get him to admit he had a daughter. He denies it.
While Ash is in the shower, Telly goes into his study. The walls are covered with fabric, and she notices some brightly colored paint visible on the wall where a small portion of the wallcovering has been torn. Quickly, she tears all the fabric off the walls to reveal a child's drawings. Ash enters and demands to know what's going on.
She reminds him that he told her he had given Lauren permission to paint on her walls. Again, Ash says he has no children. She asks him to think about it, say the name, confront it. He leaves the room and we later discover that he has called the police.
The cops arrive and escort Telly out of the apartment. She's screaming at Ash to say Lauren's name.
The cops hustle Telly into a car and we notice a familiar man watching the scene with equanimity. He is the same man Telly met that morning when she was looking for her car.
Suddenly another official car appears and men from the NSA pop out and take Telly into custody! There is some screaming and yelling between the feds and the cops and we cut back to Ash's apartment. He enters the room with the drawings on the walls, says "Lauren" and suddenly he is filled with the memory of her painting on the wall and turning to him. "Hi, Dad!" Ash goes running downstairs to tell the cops that Telly isn't crazy. He sees her locked in the NSA car and gets her out of there, tells her to run.
Ash and Telly team up to try and find out the truth about what happened. Detective Anne Pope interacts with them because her detectives had the original arrest. The NSA is very mysterious and tells her to mind her own business. Now Anne is interested in finding the truth.
Ash and Telly are hiding out in some disgusting trashy hotel, and one morning Anne and the NSA show up to take them into custody. Neither quite understands why the other is there. More screaming and yelling and Telly and Ash try to drive away, but the exit to the parking lot is blocked by none other than the mysterious helpful guy from the car. He won't move and so finally Ash just drives up to him and he is literally knocked out of the way.
But there is no blood, and no sign of the man.
Our couple eventually kidnaps an NSA guy and try to get him to explain what's going on. He refuses, saying that the real truth wouldn't fit in their brains. There is an allusion to "someone listening" and suddenly the little shack explodes! In the aftermath we see no sign of the NSA guy and our heroes are lying in a heap.
Through more sleuthing Telly and Ash discover that the mysterious man from the parking lot is the former owner of the airline which crashed, alledgedly killing the children. She tries to get word to her husband, but when she approaches him in a crowd he looks at her blankly, telling her he has never been married. He has forgotten her, too!
Telly and Ash drive to the beach house formerly owned by the aviation president. Things get really crazy now. Anne Pope has figured out where Telly is, and she goes there to try and help her. The "helpful man" shows up, only to disappear. When Anne arrives, she is walking toward Telly saying "I'm going to help you find your daughter!" when suddenly and without warning, she is jerked up into the sky and out of sight!
Back at Ash's place Telly and Ash are confronted by the "helpful man" who appears out of thin air. Ash grabs him, demanding that he tell them the truth. The man breaks the window and forces both of them out! Ash shoot up into the air a la Anne Pope and the man falls to the ground. By the time Telly gets to the street there is no sign of the man, just the broken glass.
The denouement happens in the deserted hangar belonging to the now bankrupt airline. The stranger appears and it becomes clear that this has been an experiment conducted by aliens from outer space. They wanted to see if the bond between mother and child was so strong that it could not be broken. The children were abducted, and the crash was faked. Little by little they were able to erase the memories of all the children in everyone who ever knew them. Everyone except Telly. What made her so different? We see that the strange man is not in any real position of power, and that he is in fact in some trouble because the experiment seems to have failed.
He grabs Telly and demands that she give up a final memory, the memory of Sam being born. She remembers them handing him to her in the hospital and suddenly the scene is pulled on the screen! He stands up and says, "Thank you." He asks her who she is, and if she has any children. She doesn't. He looks smug.
As he walks away, Telly puts her hand on her stomach and is flooded with a memory of being pregnant with Sam. She looks up. "Wait! I do have a son, a son who was inside me, and his name is...SAM!"
The hangar is filled with whisperings, the man looks up and shouts "I need more time!" and suddenly he is rocketed up into the sky!
Telly races to the playground, hoping to find Sam playing there. After a few moments of frantic searching, she finds him! And then sees Lauren and finally Ash. They sit on the swings and smile at each other. Fade out!