The Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) is running from May 9–May 15, 2014, with 23 features and 14 shorts premiering at The Music Box Theater. Throughout the week I'll be popping in and out of the festival, and posting a few short reviews of movies I recommend catching in wider release. (For more information on the CCFF, go here.)
One of the things I enjoy about film festivals is the rare pleasure of sitting down for a screening of a film about which I know almost nothing. In our marketing-saturated, social-media-addicted culture—from which I am admittedly unwilling to unplug—it is virtually impossible these days to go into a film free of preconceptions. Even if one avoids reviews (as I try to do, at least for films I plan to review myself), there are always trailers, commercials, print ads, tweets, buzz.
But festivals afford the opportunity to plop down in front of a film knowing nothing more than the title, a one-line synopsis, and maybe a few cast-and-crew credits. I chose to see The One I Love purely on the basis of its stars—Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake) and Mark Duplass (Your Sister's Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed)—and in spite of its synopsis, which made it sound like a hundred other indie dramedies about a couple trying to save a disintegrating relationship.
This, as it turns out, was exactly the right way to see The One I Love, the debut feature from director Charlie McDowell (the son of actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen). For the film does look at first glance like a typical (if pleasant) mumblecore relationship picture, but then—about 20 minutes in—it takes a thrilling sideways step and becomes something much more interesting. This surprise helps explain why the film has been a crowd-pleasing hit on the festival circuit, and it also suggests why the film may have an uphill battle when it goes into wider release in August. Marketing for this movie is going to be a problem: it deserves to find an audience that will appreciate its clever, high-concept playfulness, but giving away any of the spoilers upfront means giving up some of the surprising delights.
This also means, of course, that reviewing the picture in-depth is doing it a disservice, so I'm not really going to try here. What I can say is that both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Twilight Zone get name-dropped in the film, and imagining a light-handed synthesis of the two is as good a way as any to approach this film.
Sophie (Moss) and Ethan (Duplass) are a married couple for whom the spark has all but faded. In the film's sad and funny prologue, we see them trying to recreate their madcap first date, when they took an illicit dip in a stranger's pool and got chased away by the irate owner. They go back to the scene of the crime to take another plunge on their anniversary—but this time the pool's owner fails to appear on cue, and so does the passion-fueled spontaneity of the moment: Sophie and Ethan are left just treading water with each other in silent, soggy disappointment. It's a quirky but heartbreakingly authentic summation of the way the magic can fade (and refuse to be recaptured) in a long-term relationship, and it's an early sign that McDowell and writer Justin Lader have some fresh, insightful approaches to some very familiar ground.
That early promise is more than fulfilled once Sophie and Ethan's marriage counsellor (Ted Danson, the director's stepfather, in a rich cameo) convinces them to spend a week in an isolated vacation home: he has sent other couples there, he says, and it has never failed to work. And it seems to work for Sophie and Ethan as well: on their first night they drink some wine, and smoke some pot, and discover a physical and emotional intimacy they obviously haven't had in years…
…except, shortly after their coupling, Sophie is furious to discover that Ethan seems to have no memory of the event. They fight, and then the next morning things get weirder.
I'm not going to spoil any more of the film's surprises—as I said, they're best encountered naturally—but the rewarding thing about The One I Love is that it stays a movie about a relationship even as it ventures into increasingly surreal ground. (I'm not sure what to call this sub-genre of sci-fi tinged indie movies, but the best of them use a fantastical and original setup to explore emotional situations that are genuine and universal. The One I Love would not look out of place on a shelf that included movies like Safety Not Guaranteed, Her, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) Here, the high-concept weirdness allows Sophie and Ethan to confront the gaps between the people they are to each other, and the people they might like to be for each other. We're all the best versions of ourselves when we start a relationship, after all, but we let those masks slide over time: many love affairs founder in the gap between our real and ideal selves, and The One I Love continually finds clever, surprising ways to explore that space.
The One I Love is not a perfect film. Ultimately, its intellectual structure is a little smarter than its emotional content: Moss and Duplass both give very strong, amazingly nuanced performances that ground the weirdness in believable characters, but they're doing a little too much of the work that a richer, deeper screenplay might have done. The relationship problems between Sophie and Ethan are more universally accessible than those between Virginia Woolf's George and Martha, but in the end they're also considerably less interesting and developed. (Much of the dialogue was reportedly improvised, which may help explain why the film doesn't seem to plump the depths of this relationship as deeply as it could have.) And the film can't quite make up its mind whether to explain the strange, Rod-Serling-esque goings-on: it wants to leave most of the logistics a mystery, except when those logistics become important for plot purposes. This leads to an awkward and somewhat unsatisfying third act, which can't quite pay off on the considerable promise of what's come before. In the end, The One I Love is more an amusing and thought-provoking film than a deeply moving or profound one.
Still, "amusing and thought-provoking" is no small accomplishment, and the continual surprises and frequent insights make The One I Love a film worth seeking out. Though much of the discussion will inevitably center around the "twist," don't worry too much about spoilers: the central conceit is revealed early, and as the story progresses from there it never quite leads where you think it's going to anyway. (I actually suspect I may enjoy this movie more on second viewing.) Certainly, it's an absurdly clever and confident debut feature from McDowell and Lader, from whom—on the basis of this—we should expect very good things.
The One I Love is currently playing the festival circuit, and is scheduled for limited release on August 15, 2014.