Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***
It's not yet clear if "mumblecore" is an exclusive club, or if it's a subgenre that just any movie can jump into. If it's the latter, then indie screenwriter-producer turned director Bradley Rust Gray's new feature The Exploding Girl -- which had a brief theatrical opening in March -- is at least partly there. It's about a handful of twentysomethings, back home in New York on summer break from college. Sometimes they come right out and say something that's on their mind, but most of the time, they do that particular "mumblecore" thing in which they talk and talk and never quite manage to say anything. And yet they say everything.
Zoe Kazan stars as Ivy, a nice ordinary girl who suffers from epilepsy. We learn during a doctor's appointment that she had one seizure during the school year, during a particularly stressful time, which involved studying too hard, staying up too late and drinking a bit too much. You may remember Kazan -- the granddaughter of Elia Kazan -- from her brief but potent roles in Revolutionary Road and Me and Orson Welles. She has a Lili Taylor vibe; she's not classically pretty, but she has a heart-shaped presence that draws you to her onscreen.
Certainly her friend Al (Mark Rendall), with his rooster's head of hair, is drawn to her. He arrives home to discover that his parents have rented out his room, so he asks to crash on Ivy's couch. (They're old friends and he has slept there before. No biggie.) At the same time, Ivy calls but fails to hook up with her boyfriend, and her mom (Maryann Urbano) is perpetually busy teaching dance classes and preparing for various performances.
Gray films all this with a welcome dreamy quality, easily paced and warm. He often shoots from a distance, and deliberately peers through and around obstacles, as if he has somehow managed to capture these incidents accidentally; they might have happened even without the camera there. Some scenes simply depict the unhurried, but impatient summer days as the friends randomly fill their time. In more than one scene, Al shares his random passions with Ivy, such as an adoration for the inventor Nikola Tesla, and an appreciation for pigeons.
In talking about things he loves, Al springs to life. But when he tries to talk to Ivy, it's as if he's still learning. He's awkward and unsure; it's clear that he has passed from friend to potential lover. Unfortunately, much of this awkwardness turns to an overuse of the word "like," which is sadly realistic, but hard on the ears ("do you, like, like me?"). Some of the better "mumblecore" movies succeed in creating dialogue that sounds utterly realistic, but is really very stylized, which is why The Exploding Girl only vaguely qualifies for the genre.
The girl's eventual explosion isn't very surprising, and the film never really builds to it; each scene has the same dreamy, careful feel, and never very urgent, which is both refreshing and dull. Thankfully Kazan has a power of her own that is as strong as or stronger than the film's style, and she can carry a scene all by herself, even if the camera is merely watching her walk down the street. Whether she explodes or not is beside the point; it's watching her not explode that makes this film work.
Oscilloscpe has released the Region 1 DVD. It comes with a rather uninteresting interview, a short film and a music video.
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