Ivy (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia) is on a summer break when her friend Al (Mark Rendall) comes to stay with her. She's an epileptic and during the course of the film she must wrestle with her feelings for her distant boyfriend and her best friend. Short on plot but packing an emotional punch, The Exploding Girl could easily be shoehorned into the 'mumblecore' movement, but its quietly observational tone deserves more than a quick-fix stereotype that currently exists as a selling point in independent arenas. While it doesn't offer anything particularly new, and even lacks a narrative arc - opting rather to let days pass with no indication of time - Greys' film does offer a noteworthy departure from the mainstream, partly due to the performances of the two lead actors.
Kazan and Rendall are an extremely natural coupling. They invest the relationship with a subtlety and quietness that evokes a lifelong trust and familiarity, without shouting the obvious with broad strokes of backstory. In fact the little dialogue that is present in the film plays second fiddle to the way the actors physically perform with each other - the way they walk down the street together, pass knowing glances in social situations and acknowledge, through facial ticks, an awareness of feeling. The camera, often placed far from the action, is observational in an almost documentarian way - inviting us to share a friendship rather than asking us to buy into one and shoving cliche after cliche down our throat. There's no need for exposition or monologue when you have a scene of two friends sitting on a train, with no need to talk. They sway gently in silence as they mediate on the day, the camera placed behind an unknown character seated next to them. We only catch a glimpse of the couple as he moves forward in his chair. When the characters do speak it's in a kind of shorthand, expecting the audience to fill in the gaps of the relationship as we go along. There's a naturalness that's instantly recognizable and relatable - which proves to be the winning card in the films admirable hand.
DoP Eric Lin shoots the city with a restrained earthliness in the sense that natural light, bustling streets, shade projected by trees, litter, sun and rain are not manipulated - they are all allowed, like the characters, to simply exist for the time that we are allowed to observe them. I will reiterate a point from my Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) review - just because a film doesn't have the obvious aesthetic artistry of a painting, like Days Of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) or Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), that doesn't mean that it can't be beautiful. Context is vital and the photography of The Exploding Girl is so perfect for the particular film it exhibits, that it becomes beautiful. The still naturalness of the image - the fact that it looks exactly like the city landscapes that we inhabit - is what makes it so special, and what makes the possibly emerging romance so lovely. It could happen to you.
Some might find the films languorous pace and lack of plot frustrating - and the inconclusiveness of the ending won't do much to help matters. There's also an intentional distance in the film, perhaps holding a mirror to the way we live our own lives. Ivy and her boyfriend communicate only through telephone calls - mostly they only reach each others answering machines, enhancing the loneliness. Scenes of Ivy lay on her bed or staring into the rainy sky through a misty window, are both intimate and cold, and hold a great sadness. All she wants to do is talk to him face-to-face, but her mobile is the only source of communication. Equally all the music in the film is diegetic - existing in the world of the film through headphones to an MP3 player or a speaker in the distance. The soundtrack is brilliant, not existing to underscore the emotion or manipulate, but rather playing - much like in reality - as the background to our daily lives. It's almost like the antithesis of the musical montage.
By the time you've finished this review you've probably made your mind up as to whether you want to see the film or not, or give a damn about the fact that you probably won't get to for a year. Even though I've seen and loved the film (it's one of my favorites of 2009) I can't help but feel a tinge of sadness when I look at the gorgeous cover art - because I wish you could look at it too. Somewhere along the way the movie industry has lost faith in risk taking and thinking outside the box. And it's a real shame. This is a real gem.
DVD Extras: An interview with Kazan and Grey titled 'Crafting A Character', a music video and 1997 short film, Flutter.