By Don Simpson | January 8, 2011
Director: Bradley Rust Gray
Writer(s): Bradley Rust Gray
Starring: Mark Rendall, Hunter Canning, Zoe Kazan
The Exploding Girl will forever hold the distinction of the first film that I am reviewing after streaming it from Netflix via my Roku box. I never received a screener of this film and I sadly missed its all too brief theatrical run in Austin, but I remembered Kimberley Jones’ fond review in the Austin Chronicle and that is what really convinced me to seek out Bradley Rust Gray’s sophomore effort as a director. Ah, the powers of film criticism…thank you Kimberley! (The reference to The Cure’s “In Between Days” B-side “Exploding Boy” also helped attract my attention.)
The story begins as Ivy (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia Kazan) rides home to her mother’s Manhattan apartment during a break from her freshman year at college. In a daydreamy daze, she gazes through the car window, transfixed by the patterns of the passing array of roadside greenery. (We can only assume that the driver of the vehicle is more of an acquaintance than a friend, since they barely converse during the trip.) We view Ivy from a vantage point somewhere outside of the car, thus treating us to a beautiful visual image of Ivy’s engulfing round eyes and oval face behind the reflection of the nature speeding past the car window. Despite being an overused cinematic convention, the very simple image works quite well in this instance. Ivy is present in nearly every frame of The Exploding Girl and this opening sequence serves as an apt means to transport us into Ivy’s world as she is being transported home.
Ivy slips out of her dream-state when the car stops to pick up her best friend from high school, Al (Mark Rendall), along the way. Ivy and Al’s dialogue is that of two people who have gone from being very close friends to two people who have not communicated much since they left Manhattan last August for their respective colleges. Nonetheless, their eyes and body gestures signal that they probably still care quite deeply for each other.
Fate brings Ivy and Al much closer together during their time in Manhattan; all the while, Ivy’s relationship with her college boyfriend deteriorates during a series of brief cell phone conversations and voicemails. If there is one emotion that The Exploding Girl conveys most effectively, it is the stress — good and bad — caused by romantic relationships. Ivy is an epileptic, so stress affects her more than most people, and the combustibility of pent up stress becomes incredibly apparent during Ivy’s seizure. The seizure is not only triggered by the faltering state of Ivy’s relationship with her college boyfriend, but also by the barrage of unrequited emotions she has for Al.
Ivy’s seizures are explained to us during a doctor appointment early in the film — an obvious narrative trick to expose as much information as possible about Ivy’s health while using very little time to do so. The scene is successful in providing the information, yet the technique feels somewhat contrived and heavy-handed in the context of this otherwise organically told story. (The term “mumblecore” has been used in several reviews of The Exploding Girl due to Gray’s directorial knack for allowing scenes and conversations to play out quietly and naturally.)
It is clear from the time we spend with them that Ivy and Al possess a special kind of relationship dynamic — with unbridled kindness and attentiveness towards each other. The problem is that they are so familiar and comfortable with each other that taking the inevitable next step into a romantic relationship could be a real doozy.
Eric Lin’s camera falls deeply in love with the sweet young Kazan and her double ponytails, makeup-free face and flowing sundresses; it is very difficult as a viewer not to do the same. Kazan’s portrayal of a young woman who is still coming into her own is utterly mesmerizing. Through those big beautiful eyes, we are given a window to see how several of the onscreen events begin to mold Ivy into a more complete person. After an equally enticing turn in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff as Paul Dano’s young wife, I suspect Kazan has a very bright future ahead of her.