The Exploding Girl
Quiet moments carry ‘The Exploding Girl’
With a title like “The Exploding Girl,’’ you’re within your rights expecting a girl who, um, explodes. And she does, sort of, just in extreme slow motion and with a naturalistic minimalism invisible to everyone except writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s camera lens. Because we’re on the other side of that lens, we’re privileged to see it, too: the quiet collapse and renewal of a young woman’s spirit.
Gray likes to find the miraculous in the banal, and the dramatic setup in “The Exploding Girl’’ is so resolutely average as to invite ridicule. A college student named Ivy (Zoe Kazan) comes home for midterm break and gets dumped by her boyfriend; that’s about it. Within that frame, though, unfold tiny moments that come to seem monumental, or try to, and that rest on the luminosity of Kazan’s face.
Ivy’s a sweet, mousy sort, in love with a guy we hear only on the cellphone and who we immediately sense is bad news: No one stammers that purposefully when returning a lover’s feelings. At the same time, she spends her break partying around with a lanky, bright high school friend named Al (Mark Rendall), who clearly adores her and is terrified of saying so.
“The Exploding Girl’’ reminded me of the bit in “The Odd Couple’’ where Oscar says, “I always thought the gravy just came when you cooked the meat.’’ Gray, who favors extremely long takes, operates on the assumption that the gravy will come if he just keeps filming. He situates Ivy either in close-up or amid the clutter of a street scene and watches her simply being, and there’s something infinitely touching in his attentions. Like the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Gray tries to make us see a face in the crowd as a profound divinity. Because he’s not Bresson, he only comes close.
Kazan, the granddaughter of classic-era director Elia Kazan, is a young actress who has been getting a lot of work lately: the wannabe New Yorker writer in “Me and Orson Welles,’’ Meryl Streep’s daughter in “It’s Complicated.’’ She’s a blue-eyed changeling, shifting from glamour to ordinariness as a movie requires, and in “Exploding Girl’’ she’s at her most passive, at times annoyingly so. About halfway into the film we learn that Ivy is epileptic, which helps explain her stillness: The character treats her own life as if it were a bomb primed to go off at any minute.
Yet the actress repays her director’s endless gaze with a performance that hints at the possibilities deep inside Ivy. “The Exploding Girl’’ is a film about the deceptiveness of surfaces, and it takes place in a small town that you eventually realize with a start is actually New York City. That parallels the heroine, who carries a universe inside her drab frame. Gray ends his story much too neatly — it cuts against our desire to see Ivy achieve real independence — but in a sense he’s just handing her off. She was his and ours for a while, and someday she may be her own.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.