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RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes
• Crafting a Character
• “Thursday” music video
• Flutter – short film
It’s like an early David Gordon Green movie but without all that pointless action and character development.
Starring Zoe Kazan, Mark Rendall
Written and directed by Brad Rust Gray
Ivy (Kazan) goes back home to NYC for spring break during her first year at college, during which she spends her time on the phone either with the guy, Greg, that she’s been seeing or on the phone trying to call him or holding her phone waiting for him to call. It’s over the course of this week that she spends time with her best friend, Al (Rendall), who is staying with her and her mom, sleeping on their couch. When she’s about to head back to school, she realizes her feelings for one of the guys in her life is stronger than the other.
“So, like, ohmigod…”
The Exploding Girl works better as an 80-minute business card for Zoe Kazan than as a film that can stand alone on its own two feet. Nearly every single frame of the movie contains Kazan’s Ivy and she fills it well enough; I believed the entire time that she was a slightly awkward college student going through that tough period in between being a teenager living at home and adulthood — that up-and-down, 10-year span known as your Twenties. While the movie’s focus on Kazan gives her the opportunity to shine, it also does her a disservice by not giving her remotely enough to do with all that face time.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of minimalist cinema. Many movies that I love – All The Real Girls and The Station Agent, for example – don’t have anything close to a complex plot. In fact, after having seen them, it’s easier to recall feelings than responding to someone when you recommend the flick as they inevitably ask: “What’s it about?” For those asking that about The Exploding Girl, I’d have a simple answer that both explains what the movie is about and also says nothing at all at the same time. If I were being kind, I’d say it’s about that first “real” relationship. And if I weren’t, I’d say it’s about a girl who sleeps a lot when she’s not talking on a cell phone.
“And then, like, y’know…”
In rare circumstances, one-sided conversations taking place on a cell phone can be captivating. Hell, Phone Booth attempts to make the entire film about that very concept. But for the most part, when you see a character just talking on the phone, not doing anything else, it’s lifeless. It’s boring. It’s not cinema. And that’s precisely what Ivy does for an overwhelming majority of The Exploding Girl. She’s either leaving her out-of-town boyfriend, Greg, voicemails or calling him and then hanging up when it goes to voicemail, occasionally even talking to her boyfriend on the phone, or talking to her best friend on the phone who is staying at her own house so you’d think she’d be able to at least have some face-to-face conversations with him more often than not. But, no. There are a number of scenes where Ivy actually interacts in real-life with people, but they feel like they’re in the minority.
Writer/director Bradley Rust Gray’s (a man who was born with the perfect name for self-important cinema) script couldn’t have weighed much in the actors’ hands when studying their lines during rehearsal. For this to feel like nothing happens while being in a genre of movies where you don’t expect a whole lot to happen, you know that there just ain’t much going on. And, again, while I love stories with small yet powerful character arcs, Ivy’s growth feels both obvious and underdeveloped all at once. From the get-go, we know that she’s going to realize that she loves her best friend and that she’s going to break up with her on-the-rocks boyfriend; the point of the movie is to find out how.
And that’s what the movie fails to do: show us anything interesting during Ivy’s spring break at home from college. We see her napping. We see her eating soup. We see her on the phone or playing with her cell phone in countless venues. We see her walking. We see her hanging out with Al, but more often than not, ditching him to just be alone, waiting to talk to Greg on the phone, who, based on the amount of excitement in his voice, has clearly checked out a long time ago — if he’d ever even had any serious feelings for Ivy in the first place. The burden of these types of movies is to externalize an internal struggle as much as possible — but, when the character just broods, with probably a mountain of emotion going on underneath her skin, we can only infer – not experience – and that doesn’t make for compelling cinema.
“Wait. No. NO! She said what!?”
Character studies work best when putting someone in a tough situation and seeing how they handle it. Rust Gray gets the first part right by putting Ivy into one — it’s easy for those of us older to look back at our naivete when we were in that position with hindsight, but the reality is that your first adult relationship is a big deal — unfortunately, for some reason, he never forces her to make any decisions on her own behalf. Other people decide for her on everything: when she’s sick, Al tells her she needs soup and makes it for her; when she wants to talk to Greg, she has to wait for him to call her back or just hope that he answers her; when Al asks her straight-up if she likes him, she literally doesn’t respond. And Rust Gray lets her off the hook! He cuts to the next scene before she gives him an answer. I suppose maybe it was to leave us hanging? But, c’mon: this isn’t some mystery or suspense flick. We’re not eagerly anticipating her answer wondering what she’s going to say. We want to see how it transpires. We want to see that scene — at least, I did. It was what had been set up the whole movie up until that point. So instead of it coming across like a cliffhanger, it only feels like another instance where Ivy needed to take an active role in her own life only to get bailed out by some higher power and in the process, we the audience loses out on some entertaining drama.
There are some lessons that we all need to learn by doing — the experience alone is the only way that it’ll stick in those stubborn brains of ours regardless of how many people try to teach us by telling us their horror stories. Ivy needs to go through this one on her own; instead it feels like Rust Gray loves his own character too much – like an overprotective parent – to put her through any undue harm. It probably felt good for him to see her get through it all in that ideal scenario: she grew up and realized what (who) she really wanted and needed to be with, all without actually going through hell to get to that realization. It’s basically what we all wish had happened to us when we went through that miserable experience ourselves, only now we know that it had to go that way for us to be where (and who) we are now — hopefully healthier, more mature, and more aware of what we need out of a relationship. That makes for a relatively hollow fantasy at best, not the deep character study that it wants to be.
“Wait, no… no I mean you cut out there. Hold on, yeah-yeah. Let me just walk across- okay cool there, yeah I can hear you again.”
The film is quite beautiful to watch. It’s pretty remarkable really that the filmmakers were able to create so many unique and interesting frames that were filled predominantly with just Kazan on the phone. It was shot on the Red, which continuously proves its worth in taking film-like footage — and even if it has elements of looking digital, it’s beautiful on its own to not look like we’re watching something cheap and inferior. Unfortunately the movie itself isn’t quite up to par with the quality of the image, made even more apparent in the ridiculously pretentious behind-the-scenes featurette with Rust Gray and Kazan talking ever-so deeply about their technique and method, coming off so self-indulgent and overly important. Watching this after the film confirmed my initials feelings about the movie — they clearly thought they were making something much more moving than what actually transpired on screen.
“Toilet flushing? No, I mean, I’m outside so that’s impossible. Must be the wind or something.”