Beauty on a slow fuse
By Dan Kois
Friday, March 26, 2010
We first see Ivy, the college student at the center of Bradley Rust Gray's delicate character study "The Exploding Girl," asleep in a car on the way home to New York for summer break. Her face, already impassive in sleep, is obscured by the reflection of passing trees in the car's windshield. Subdued, subtle and almost a minute long, the shot hints at Ivy's mysterious character and establishes the visual sophistication of Gray's low-budget indie, which -- like Ivy herself -- is as lovely as it is opaque.
Zoe Kazan, the young actress who plays Ivy, is best known for her burgeoning career in New York theater; you can see her on Broadway now playing opposite Christopher Walken in the outrageous "A Behanding in Spokane." But there's nothing stagey about her performance as Ivy; Kazan is so understated in the role as to be nearly unreadable. The camera observes her moon face and sharp blue eyes as she makes her way through a summer in New York, and by the end of the movie you feel as though you know this girl, even if you can never quite understand her.
An early scene in a doctor's office makes it clear that Ivy suffers from epilepsy, and hanging over her summer is the possibility of another seizure: the ticking bomb that seems to have inspired the movie's title. It's to writer-director Gray's credit that this tension is never exploited but rather explored, as we see the ways that Ivy's condition amplifies her already guarded personality. Advised by her doctor to avoid stress, and unable even to take a bath without a chaperone, Ivy struggles for equilibrium as a long-distance romance goes sour and as her best friend, Al (the equally appealing Mark Rendall), tries to deepen their relationship.
The sense that we are watching her life from a distance is intensified by Gray's choice to shoot long sequences documentary style, from half a block away. From afar we see Kazan and Rendall weave among other pedestrians in the Manhattan streetscape, bit players in the great drama that is New York in the summertime. Viewers willing to slow down their cinematic metabolism enough to watch "The Exploding Girl" at its own pace will find their patience rewarded by moments of great beauty, as when Ivy and Al share a quiet hug on a faraway rooftop at sunset as flocks of pigeons wheel above them. It's a scene that seems to have sprung not from a storyboard but from life itself.
Kois is a freelance reviewer.
Contains college-age drinking, pot smoking and wistful ennui.