Ivy (Zoe Kazan) is home from school for the summer break. Her boyfriend Greg (voice of Franklin Pipp) is at his home, far away, and their only link is via cell phone contact. Ivy’s old school hood friend, Al (Mark Rendall), shows up on her doorstep begging to let him stay with her and her mom – his folks rented out his room and did not tell him. All of this stresses out epileptic Ivy and she could become “The Exploding Girl.”
The story, by writer-director Bradley Rust Gray, is simple, straightforward and predictable. That said, the nicely crafted writing, the even and assured direction, fine acting and production make “The Exploding Girl” a cut above tale and character study. Predictability is not a bad thing if it is what the viewer wants. Gray understands this and concentrates his efforts creating real characters and inventing the low-key tension (no shootouts, nudity, murder or mayhem, here) that makes the story of Ivy flow so well.
Of course, a good story can be left to flap in the breeze if the actors are not up the task. Fortunately, the tiny cast – Kazan, Rendell, Franklin Pipp (whose phone calls give the character body language via voice) and Maryann Urbano as Ivy’s mom – gives full dimension to each character. The long time friendship between Ivy and Al is threatened as their attraction for each other as friends shifts toward romance. This threat is just one of the stresses that Ivy faces that could trigger a feared seizure.
The production, shot nicely by Eric Lin, uses the NYC location well, from a working class, rather than “Sex in the City,” viewpoint, making the city a character, too. Ivy’s varied costumes hint at her being an only child and all of them suit her beautifully. I noted that the wardrobe had a lived in look and Ivy would wear, over the course of her summer in the city, the same outfits at different times – just like a real person.
I had watched a few minutes of “The Exploding Girl” a couple of days before sitting down to see the whole thing. I though I was going to see a conventional, low budget chick flick, from what I saw in those few minutes. I was wrong. This is a mature story about the lives of two young people (and one voice) that kept my attention from start to finish. This is an art house, not Cineplex, movie and deserves attention from discerning moviegoers looking for intelligent entertainment, especially among the tweenies. I give it B+.
It's college break and Ivy (Zoe Kazan, "Revolutionary Road," "Me and Orson Welles") has just picked up childhood friend Al (Mark Rendall, "30 Days of Night") from the station, but it's Greg (Franklin Pipp) she longs to hear from. But when Al discovers his parents have rented out his room, he comes to stay with Ivy and her mom (Maryann Urbano, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2") and their loving comfort together is clearly a better relationship for "The Exploding Girl."
Writer/editor/director Bradley Rust Gray (cowriter of "In Between Days," another Cure song inspired title) has made a quiet, low-key love story illuminated by the every day acts that speak louder than words. The film is often beautiful to look at, the filmmakers (cinematography by Eric Lin using a Red One Camera) exhibiting an artistic mise-en-scène that is often intricate but never showy.
It is immediately obvious to us that Al feels more than friendship for Ivy and that Greg, from the very first fractured phone call, no longer does, but it takes this entire film for Ivy to come to that conclusion. And this is not a bad thing. We watch Ivy fritter away her days and see all the ways Al connects and cares for her. After a visit to see a cousin's new baby, Al asks whether she wants to have her own. It's a complicated response, given Ivy's epilepsy, a condition which Al takes both as a matter of course and seriously. 'I just had a morning jerk,' she replies when he hears glass breaking in the morning, and steps in to help clean up. They share the same food and drink.
When Greg first calls Ivy instead of the other way around, it is to tell her that he was in 'a little car accident.' But there is more than that. 'Remember Rebecca, that girl I told you about that I used to date?' Ivy pushes away the obvious, conveying that he should tell her she said 'Feel better,' insisting this message is relayed to the girl she's never met, a passive aggression to establish her existence and position.
Mark Rendall is hugely appealing as the likable, kind Al, the type of guy who plays cards with a friend and her mother and has a good time doing so. Rendall isn't overtly sexy, but his ease in his own skin and his relative ease around Ivy projects an erotic warmth. He's good helping out - making soup, attending a seizure - in an assuming way that neither annoys the recipient or begs for thanks. Franklin Pipp, who is heard but never seen, really fleshes out Greg with a vocal performance that is a mix between placation and withdrawal, a cowardly inability to face conflict, an eagerness to gloss over with empty platitudes. In the lead, Kazan, who won Best Actress at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival for this performance, creates a buzzing interior life with a languid surface. After Ivy receives bad news, the camera sits on Kazan's face for about 20 seconds (we've been recently reminded by Al just how long 10-15 seconds can be) and the actress does about four different things to project her emotions and we never see her acting.
Kazan's performance is also indebted to her director who frames her in a startling variety of ways. He uses street shots with foreground and background traffic intensifying her feelings, curbs and street signs signaling them. He shoots her as a shadow against a lit background, in focus but partially obscured by a blurred foreground figure, within a dance recital mirror whose frame we cannot see. In one stunning shot, Ivy lies in her bed where her textured taupe top is reflected in the beige bamboo pattern on her sheets. Later this pattern will be used again as a stand in for a cloud of pigeons flying overhead (Al has just shown her baby pigeons in a rooftop coop in an homage to Kazan's grandad's "On the Waterfront.")
"The Exploding Girl" is a lovely, languorous film that does much with little and leaves you feeling like you've witnessed some minor miracle. Kazan's done some good work in supporting roles, but this should put her on the map as the real deal.
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