By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 3, 2010)
Life is what happens to you
When you’re busy making other plans
(Engage geek mode) Remember that episode of the original Star Trek series where the Enterprise is taken over by “time-accelerated” aliens, who “convert” Captain Kirk into their reality? Even though he is still standing right next to his crew mates, to their perception he has vanished into thin air; his futile attempts to communicate sounds like the buzzing of insects to them. Inversely, Kirk can actually still “see” them, except they are moving and speaking in slow motion. Sometimes I feel that we have evolved into a society of time-accelerated creatures who are terrified of digesting any deep contemplation of our existence that can’t be wrapped up in a sound bite or tweeted in 140 characters or less.
That general impatience with “stillness” also seems to have become the meme in cinema. Don’t get me wrong; as a movie fan, I can appreciate all styles of film making. Flash cutting and relentless “shaky cam” panning has its place (action thrillers, for example) but on occasion, “life” simply happens before you onscreen while you’re busy waiting for the “movie” to start (to paraphrase a great English poet). And sometimes, that’s enough.
Despite its provocative title, The Exploding Girl is one such film; life simply happens for a while…and eventually, credits roll. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s minimally scripted, no-budget meditation on echo boomers going through growing pains may not be visually showy or sport a hip mumblecore soundtrack, but nails the zeitgeist of young adulthood in much truer fashion than recent films like Juno or (500) Days of Summer.
The story centers on Ivy (Zoe Kazan) who comes home to New York City for summer break. Al (Mark Rendall), her best friend since childhood is also back from college for the summer. To his chagrin, Al’s parents have rented out his room, so he ends up crashing on the couch at Ivy’s family home. Ivy and Al hang out, go to the occasional party, get stoned, get up at the crack of noon-you know, the kinds of things you generally expect college kids to do when they’ve got some down time. Ivy keeps her cell phone glued to her ear, obsessively checking in with her boyfriend, who is spending his school break somewhere upstate (we never actually see him).
Following Zoe to a doctor’s appointment, we learn that she has to take medication for epilepsy. As long as she avoids stressful situations and stays away from alcohol, it appears to be manageable. Ay, there’s the rub. What are some of the mitigating circumstances that could drive a young person headlong into binge drinking? Yes, there are many; especially where affairs of the heart are concerned.
The narrative is not particularly deep or complex, but there is an almost wordless eloquence in the performances; something that happens when actors are given room to breathe (as they are here), letting their actions (and reactions) speak for themselves.
Kazan, a moon-faced pixie with expressive eyes, carries the film nicely. Rendall has a natural ease in front of the camera; although he might have been given too much free reign in improvising his lines (because like, um, you know, it’s like, um, kinda like hard for me to imagine someone scripting out this type of dialogue, you know?).
I get an impression from his film that Gray has studied John Cassavetes, particularly evident in some of the guerilla-style exterior shots, where the director doesn’t seem to mind passers-by occasionally hogging the foreground while his actors continue to plow forward with the scene (albeit out of view).
The film is nicely shot (on high-def video) and excellent use is made of the NYC locales. One scene in particular, framed on a rooftop where Ivy and Al are watching the sun set over the city while flocks of pigeons return to their nearby roost, is quite lovely (and possibly is intended as homage to On the Waterfront, which was directed by Kazan’s grandfather, Elia-unless I’m over-analyzing it). Or maybe it’s just simply two people, decelerating time.