Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca: The Exploding Girl

The Exploding Girl is a delicate flower that is not so much a film than a Zen meditation on awkward teenage romance. I initially thought I would like this film more than I did. In the opening sequence a boy and a girl catch a ride home with a friend for some type of school break (spring?). The boy, obviously smitten with his co-passenger, inquires as to her boyfriend's plans to visit over break. The boyfriend won't be visiting, she says; he'll be too busy doing things with his parents. The boy nods and looks out the window, at which point the camera pauses on his close-up. The pause lasts a full two or three beats longer than your typical reaction shot at the close of a scene. It is a Meaningful Pause, allowing you to drink in many relevant themes from a very small exchange: the pain of the boy's unrequited feelings, the girl's doomed current relationship, the boy's timidity and resignation not to intervene, their mutual insecurity (hers shaded with an endearing naivete).

That was effective, I thought to myself. And I was encouraged because I find it's a promising sign when an artist knows how to wield a good pause. It shows confidence, maturity. He's not a slave to nonstopmotionlightssoundwhizbanglookatme bloviation. But here's the thing about the pause. It's really only effective when deployed amid bursts of meaningful action. You can't have a movie -- or a play, or a speech -- that's all pause. That's a still life. And that's what this movie was; it was all pause.

To the director's credit (and I do want to dilute my criticism because he was a bearded whisper-quiet sensitive type who seemed like he might shrink and burst into tears if you told him his shoe was untied), many of the pauses were compelling. Far more of them than had a right to be. The two leads, notably Zoe Kazan, owned their characters and put on a clinic of nuanced, silent, angsty expression. They could subtly emote like motherfuckers. But a collage of 20-second close-ups eventually runs out of steam (or never builds up any steam in the first place).

In fairness, I saw this movie under the exact wrong circumstances, rushing in from work after a busy day that started at 6am (a full three hours before my normal waking time) with a trek to Brooklyn to look at a crappy apartment. My ability to follow slowly building under-the-surface tension was not at its peak, but I think it's a bad sign when you doze off for a few moments and wake up to the same shot as before you closed your eyes, of the same character making the same blank, vaguely pained expression.

I do want to praise the director for his conclusion to the movie -- more specifically a magical final shot that was sweet, powerful, moving, everything you'd want. I can probably count on one hand the number of last movie scenes that I've actually liked, but this delivered the emotional fulfillment you want to feel right before the credits roll. And the shot -- it's not a twist or anything, but I don't want to give it away -- derives much of its poignancy from the total inaction and glacial pacing that precedes it. It's like if you're taking the interstate all day through Nebraska and suddenly you come upon an extended curve or a little rise, it feels like you're really hitting some terrain now. If this plot had a more severe arc, or a lot of raging emotional scenes, the tender moment at the end would have seemed ordinary, even precious. That would have been a shame. But there's a reason most people prefer skiing the Rockies to driving through Nebraska.

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