Judge Daryl Loomis is sweet as a baby bird, but he has twice as much meat on his bones.
It's really good to see you.
It isn't easy for independent romance films. Without the luxury of big-name casting and huge budgets of their mainstream counterparts or the sex and gore of their low-budget brethren, they are judged by their meager finances and often amateur performers. That's not to say there isn't good work out there, and The Exploding Girl is one such piece. Starring Zoe Kazan (Me and Orson Welles), daughter of Nicholas Kazan and granddaughter of Elia Kazan, the second feature from director Bradley Rust Gray (Salt) shows us the subtle sweetness in a week in the life of an average New York college girl.
Facts of the Case
Ivy (Kazan) has arrived home for a short vacation from college. Her old friend Al (Mark Rendall, 30 Days of Night) hitched a ride back with her, but when he finds out that his parents have rented out his room, he has to stay with Ivy and her mother. Ivy has started to grow apart from her boyfriend, and her close proximity to Al makes her realize that there might be something more to their friendship.
While The Exploding Girl is fairly lacking in drama, it's an emotionally satisfying slice of life in the spirit of Eric Rohmer's romantic work. Ivy is a normal, floppy-headed girl, just out of her teens, who doesn't know what she wants yet, but she knows that she loves life. Her world is uncomplicated, but she must watch what she does and stay on an even keel. If her emotions get out of control, she runs the risk of suffering a seizure. Her epilepsy doesn't hinder her life too badly, but it is something ever-present on her mind. She does a good job of keeping her emotions in check, but this week, intended as a relaxing time with her mother, threatens to send her off the rails.
Before she left school, everything was great between Ivy and her boyfriend (who we hear on the phone, but do not see, voiced by Hunter Canning). Every time she tries to call while on break, however, he is either too busy to talk or doesn't pick up. As he becomes more distant, his excuses get more absurd, and it's clear something is not right in their relationship. Meanwhile, Al acts like the world's greatest boyfriend. He's very considerate and goes with her to completely boring places; he makes her the center of his world. Ivy has always loved him as a friend, but he's here right now, and he cares. It changes the stakes.
This simple situation makes for slow, meditative viewing. We're watching life in action, undramatic as that may be sometimes, and your stomach for that will dictate your enjoyment of the film. I found Ivy a charming character and The Exploding Girl a pleasant film, if not a great one. Director Gray may not quite be going for verite, but his extended takes and street-level camera make for a decidedly realistic film. While the actors do their thing, Gray lets the street action play out as it is, and the film feels very spontaneous as a result. Some might find it irritating that there are plenty of moments obscured by cars or pedestrians, but that plays very well with our role as a fly on the wall of Ivy's life.
Zoe Kazan delivers an especially charming performance as Ivy. She knows her character very well, and is completely consistent in the role. Seeing the actress as herself in the special feature lets us know just how deep she got into Ivy; they are totally different people. Kazan is in every scene and carries the film on her shoulders, but the other cast members do quite well for themselves as well. Mark Rendall is convincing and sympathetic as Al, who is generally happy-go-lucky, but can't deny or hide his feelings. When he reveals his feelings to Ivy and when he brings her to a bird sanctuary, he shows a genuine vulnerability. Hunter Canning also does very well, especially since he doesn't have a physical presence in the film. He makes himself a scummy villain without ever showing his face, which is pretty impressive. Mom doesn't have a lot to do, but overall, this four person ensemble really sells the film.
The DVD is another excessively-packaged release from Oscilloscope, technically sound with brief but strong extras. The Exploding Girl isn't flashy in any way, but the anamorphic image looks as good as it possibly can. The streets of New York look crisp and clear, with good colors and black levels. There's really not a hint of a defect anywhere. The audio is given a bigger role than films of this kind usually have. Normally, small character studies have a flat, quiet mix, but here we have a full surround mix, and a pretty good one, at that. As much of the film occurs on the city streets, and we get a complete soundscape in the rear channels, filled with cars and conversation. It's unimportant to the story, but gives a nice sense of place. Our extra features amount to three, but they're a good bunch. We start with a featurette called "Creating a Character," in which we follow Zoe Kazan and Bradley Rust Gray through the city streets as they talk in detail about the genesis of the film and the filmmaking process. They are a friendly and engaging pair, and the piece serves as something of a mini-commentary, telling you everything you might want to know about the film. We also have a funny 1997 short film called Flutter that the director made at USC. It's no doubt a student film, but it shows potential. Finally, a music video for the song "Thursday," from from indie rock act, Asobi Seksu, one of the only pieces of music featured in the film.
There aren't a lot of thrills and chills in The Exploding Girl, but Bradley Rust Gray has made a charming film of consistent quality and style. The good performances from the tiny cast made me feel like I was in the room with them, and it made for a comfortable, if not a particularly exciting experience. Sometimes, that's all you need.
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