The pains of being pure at heart are many in Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl, a moody, osmotic character study that thoroughly stresses the “awk” in youthful awkwardness. The American accompaniment to wife and co-director So Yong Kim’s In Between Days (both winking allusions to the same Cure single), Girl mirrors the former in its observational focus on best friends whose relationship lies in between platonic and romantic. The contemplative long takes, extended silences, and artless conversations also define the film as a well-done translation of the exquisite Taiwanese art of is-this-it patience (Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s Café Lumière is Gray’s cited inspiration).
With her perfectly expressive, cherubic features, a winsome Zoe Kazan (she claimed Tribeca’s best actress prize) stars as Ivy, a collegiate gal who returns to Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights for a between-semester spell. Her shyness and self-restraint are immediately attributed (and, thus, activates a countdown) to her epilepsy, which surfaces with any sort of excess activity, be it alcoholic, emotional, and so on. Tesla-loving (read: love of magnetic attraction) and emotionally clumsy Al (Mark Rendall) also happens to be back in the city and, because his get-rich parents rented out his room, he has no one to turn to except her. The couch, of course, is all his.
Gray captures the characters’ uncertain yet burgeoning sense of being-in-the-world at a keen, knowing remove. While Ivy tries time and time again to literally connect via cellphone with her never-seen, monosyllabic boyfriend (one obviously looking for an exit strategy), she and Al while away the time by picnicking and playing cards at the park, strolling through streets bottlenecked with traffic and construction, and attending fétes where Ivy looks absolutely farouche. As Al ever-so-slowly musters his courage to make a move, Ivy retreats further inward.
With Ivy’s self-consciousness matched by Al’s Mister Milquetoast personality, the atmospheric sounds — whether the cacophony of car horns, the routine take offs and landings of nearby JFK, or a coop of birds gone aflutter — become immutable elements that not only accent the silences, but inhibit communication, a fact made painfully clear when Ivy receives a pivotal call on the go. Throughout these directionless and repeated public scenes, cinematographer Eric Lin’s HD camera expertly spies Ivy from a distance — often snared or isolated in the concrete bustle — as trucks, trees, and other objects impressionistically blur and obscure the line of vision.
In more intimate settings, Kazan’s musing face is caught in close-up, each silent movement registering more emotion than all the confused how-do-you-say sentences combined. If anything, the film never suffers for visual splendor, particularly the sublime, color-coalescing opening shot. With its all-out title and accumulating tension, The Exploding Girl hints at some resonant and final bang, but ultimately builds up to a near-bathetic whimper — one concluding scene, although beautiful, feels as symbol-leaden as Marlon Brando and Eva Marie-Saint’s rooftop antecedent in grandfather Kazan’s On the Waterfront.
The Exploding Girl will play BAMCinemaFEST in mid-June. Click here for more information.