Sunday, June 14, 2009

BAMcinemaFEST Review: Bradley Rust Gray's "The Exploding Girl"

The Exploding Girl. 2009. Written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray. Produced by So Yong Kim, Karin Chien, Ben Howe, and Bradley Rust Gray. Cinematography by Eric Lin. Edited by So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray. Sound by Michael Sterkin.

Cast: Zoe Kazan (Ivy), Mark Rendall (Al), Franklin Pipp (Greg), Maryann Urbano (Mom).

Bradley Rust Gray's lovely second feature The Exploding Girl will screen as part of "BAMcinemaFEST," a film festival showcasing recent American independent films that will be at BAM Rose Cinemas from June 18 through 27. This festival will replace the "Sundance at BAM" series that ran at this time for the past three years, which, according to a Sundance spokesperson, is "taking a break" this year. Nevertheless, it looks like a pretty strong line-up, with at least a few films I'm looking forward to seeing, such as Tze Chun's Children of Invention, Ry Russo-Young's You Won't Miss Me, Robert Siegel's Big Fan, Lynn Shelton's Humpday, Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax, and Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson. The festival also includes short films, live music performances, and selections from BAM's repertory film program, with director Arnaud Desplechin present for screenings of Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.

Here is what I wrote on The Exploding Girl when it screened at this year's Tribeca Film Festival:

The précis of Bradley Rust Gray’s film The Exploding Girl sounds like boilerplate mumblecore: vacationing college girl Ivy (Zoe Kazan, in a riveting, affecting performance), battling an epileptic condition, has halting, increasingly awkward conversations with the boyfriend she anxiously plays phone tag with, while her platonic buddy Al (Mark Rendall) inches ever closer to becoming something more than a friend. But in the masterful hands of Gray, this becomes a delicate and gorgeous slice of New York life, brilliantly observed and brimming with emotion. Much like his wife and filmmaking collaborator So Yong Kim (director of Treeless Mountain and In Between Days, who also co-edited and co-produced this film), Gray has a visual preference for sustained, intimate long takes, very often shot from middle and long distance, with physical obstructions such as doorways, windows, and crowds on the street often inserting themselves between the characters and the camera, as well as breathtakingly beautiful cutaways to sky and trees (a late rooftop sunset shot of Ivy and Al accompanied by pigeons flying in formation is a particularly exquisite one). These elements provide a depth that manifests itself in every gesture, every emotionally fraught pause in conversation that is captured here.

One of the great charms of The Exploding Girl is how evocatively and accurately it conveys the particularly slow, lazy feel of a New York summer. There are many nice passages of Ivy wandering the streets and lounging at parties, taking needed pauses from the drama of much of her life, not the least of which is her epilepsy, kept at bay by medication, but always threatening to overtake her. The title of the film, which also doubles as a neat metaphor for her condition as well as her emotional turmoil, actually comes from a song by The Cure (which happens to be the flipside of the Cure single "In Between Days,” the namesake of his wife’s debut feature). The Exploding Girl, again like Kim’s films, derives much of its power from a sensitive and magnetic central performance, in this case by the instantly winning Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of director Elia Kazan and daughter of Hollywood screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord), who in every movement and expression lends this film an uncommon grace. Kazan last appeared in a key role in Sam Mendes’ film Revolutionary Road, but here she proves immensely capable of being the main attraction. As impressive as all the film’s other collaborators are, Kazan shines as the true emotional center and makes The Exploding Girl much more than just a pretty object. And when the dreaded explosion finally occurs, an event we have been anticipating throughout the film, it leads to a quiet yet intense catharsis, both for Ivy and for us watching, that is a soul-satisfying conclusion to one of the year’s loveliest films.

The Exploding Girl screens on June 25 at 6:30. Click here to purchase tickets.

Additional reading: an multimedia article on So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray on the site FLYP, where you can view clips from their films.

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