There are two names on the DVD cover of The Exploding Girl: one is the name of director and writer Bradley Rust Gray and the other is its lead actress Zoe Kazan, who happens to be the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire). The young leading woman is still a little-known talent, but perhaps not for long, as the folks at Oscilloscope Laboratories—the film’s distributor— understand very well that it is only a matter of time before this Tribeca Film Festival Best Actress performance will be recognized as the beginning of a bright career.
Kazan plays Ivy, a college student coming home to New York City for her spring break. Along with her is Al, her longtime friend dating back to grade school, who is also back in the city, but from another college. Gray’s film has a very minimalist plotline, which basically involves Ivy and Al bonding over their break when Al ends up staying at Ivy and her mother’s apartment for the week after his mother rented his room out. Ivy and Al’s relationship remains platonic throughout the film. but the possibility of could-be and could-not is the charm of this understated romance.
The Exploding Girl spends the majority of its duration following Ivy and Al hanging out in the city. Picnicking in a park, hanging out at parties, sharing a headphone in the subway, which are all very common for twenty-something New Yorkers. Independent films about social lives of young people in hip and predominately white urban milieu (think Austin or Brooklyn) have been confined to the “mumblecore” movement in the past decade, but The Exploding Girl bares little resemblance to the contrived awkwardness manifested in the said genre. Gray weaves the ambiguity of his characters’ relationship in between simple everyday interactions— be it sharing a headphone in the subway or the playful eat-it-or-throw-it exchange over a slice of leftover pizza; the depiction of the pair is handled with a light touch.
The fact that two lead characters’ underlying feelings for each other remain largely unspoken makes The Exploding Girl more realistic and relatable than other cinematic relationships. Gray’s film invites viewers to read between the lines. “It’s so good to see you,” Al and Ivy say to each other during the film’s opening minutes, as Al smiles faintly, looks away for a split second and then takes a gulp softly. The actors’ expressions are deftly executed, leaving it up for viewers to interpret the cues because the characters might very well be unsure about their own intentions. Ivy’s trouble with her boyfriend and Al’s half-hearted courtship with other women offer no cut-and-dry explanation to their mutual attraction. The film is as comfortable in its depiction of platonic friendship as it is with romantic potential and it comes with an understanding of the possible gray area. The lack of forcible drama provides a natural and soothing rhythm.
Speaking of being natural, cinematographer Eric Lin’s camera often pries from a distance or behind some background objects, letting the characters perform in the streets of the city without being hounded by film equipment. The soundscape of the city plays a crucial role in The Exploding Girl, as the unpredictable meshed with the scripted perform beautifully. Zoe Kazan, who had a small but memorable part in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles last year, carries many solo scenes among the pedestrians and not even a fire truck can stop this girl. Kazan fleshes out a determined yet conflicted character, who is under the pressure of her epileptic condition and a fragile romance. She has the charm and acting chops to be a star, and hopefully will not morph into the type of rising starlet who is relegated to terrible roles that offer little other than being the object of male desire, à la post-Lost In Translation Scarlett Johannson. While Kazan rightfully deserves her accolades, Mark Rendall should not be forgotten for his equally impressive and understated take on the character Al.
To be honest, I was initially attracted to the film by its visually arresting poster, which shows a pensive Ivy on the rooftop of a brownstone house watching a fleet of pigeons fly by at sundown. The actual scene in the film proves to be not only a striking image, but also a pivotal moment for Ivy and Al. Director Bradley Rust Gray sets himself apart from other filmmakers with his assured sense of his aesthetics and his austere take on character development. The downside is that The Exploding Girl is almost austere to a fault— you can only invest so much into watching these characters’ fates unfold when there is so little at stake. But my fondness for The Exploding Girl undoubtedly tickles my fancy for a possible DVD release of Gray’s first feature, Salt, an independent production set in a remote Icelandic village about a teenager in love with her sister’s boyfriend. Gray and his partner So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountains), with whom he takes turns in producing each other’s directorial efforts, show signs of a filmmaking couple that will improve with each passing film.
The Exploding Girl is available on DVD.