Let In Your Eyes be a lesson that not absolutely everything that Joss Whedon touches turns to gold, even the things the beloved filmmaker and character creator writes with his own hands. Although Whedon has recently found himself some big time blockbuster cred and some serious mainstream appeal – his The Avengers is one of the highest grossing films of all time, so that’s pretty mainstream – the screenwriter and director first earned his devoted fanbase with a bevy of more clever, character-driven television shows earlier in his career.
That attention to character development, personal relationships, and big ideas is evident in Brin Hill’s directorial debut, which Whedon penned, but the rest of the film willfully and completely squanders its positive attributes. A supernatural romance with roots in the real world, In Your Eyes’ singular and ambitious idea – what would happen if you could literally see through another person’s eyes? – is taken in a number of clichéd and flawed directions, and the film eventually devolves from intriguing to embarrassing.
In Your Eyes opens on one day in two different locations, as young Rebecca sleds haphazardly down a snowy mountain in New Hampshire, while kid Dylan physically experiences Rebecca’s eventual sled-into-tree accident in a classroom in New Mexico. There is no inciting incident that binds the two together – their connection, which is conveyed by way of sliding between their narratives and ultimately blending them, as Rebecca goes flying into a tree and Dylan reacts to it by falling out of desk chair, exists before the accident. These two don’t get slammed together in any way, and that choice – to just make this a thing that happens to be – is one of the better ones the film makes.
When we meet Rebecca (Zoe Kazan, who is forced to hide her quirky charm for much of the film) and Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) again as adults, both seem to be irreparably damaged. Rebecca is a permanently clinched bundle of nerves, all shyness, fear and wedding ring-twisting (an unoriginal and banal way to telegraph that there are problems in her marriage). As a homemaker without her own professional and creative outlets, Rebecca is vacant and weird, not the kind of girl who would carelessly toss herself down a hill on a little sled. Similarly, Dylan has abandoned the one trait from his childhood that was hammered home in the film’s opening – that he’s smarter than his friends – by engaging in some petty crime and attempting to rebuild his life, post-prison. Neither Rebecca nor Dylan is doing a great job at living, so the injection of something wild and wonderful instantly lights them both up.
When the duo finally taps into their connection – one that we soon learn has stayed with them since the accident – it really is both wild and wonderful. Finally Rebecca has some answers as to why she sometimes reacts in a violently physical manner to, well, nothing at all (she’s really reacting to bruiser Dylan getting tossed around), and Dylan figures out that the unshakeable but vague presence in his life was really just Rebecca milling around in his head. The pair can only “hear” each other when they talk aloud, and their conversations are conveyed as if they were simply speaking on the telephone, a simple and easy way to package up a big idea.
Rebecca and Dylan’s bond becomes strong quite quickly, and although that bond is initially a positive thing – finally, both of them have something unique and special to focus on! – it soon has some hefty repercussions elsewhere in their lives. If only they could do something like, oh, meet in person to talk about it? Or try to prove to other people what’s going on? See if this is something that anyone else has ever experienced? Gather evidence? Pick up a phone? Try video chat? Something? Anything? Nope, instead the pair continues on their merry way, heading straight towards more drama, some big trauma and the utter wasting of a clever and intriguing idea.
Most of that trauma and drama comes from Rebecca’s side, and it’s not helped by a past mental breakdown that had nothing to do with Dylan. As Rebecca’s villainous husband Phillip, Mark Feuerstein is tasked with a role so one-note and obviously nefarious that it’s laughable, and it’s made still worse by Rebecca repeatedly speaking about his previous kindnesses and their initial connection, all of which seem impossible to imagine ever happened. Still weirder, Phillip is a doctor, but one seemingly without sympathy, empathy or basic human emotions. All Phillip wants to do is write Rebecca off as an emotionally and mentally unstable wacko and toss her into an institution. (This proves important for the film’s dramatics, but damning to the rest of it.)
It doesn’t help that he film’s production values are not particularly high, and In Your Eyes looks much more like a movie of the week or an hour-long television show than a polished final feature. Unfortunately, the film includes some poorly rendered CGI, used to approximate the experience of Rebecca and Dylan seeing through each other eyes (and, yes, this is a literal explanation of the phenomena they experience), which is both unnecessary and distracting.
In Your Eyes has got a fine idea to drive it, and one well worth experiencing away from bad technical choices and even worse narrative decisions, but the final execution of all of it is so graceless and so off base that it would be better enjoyed with one’s eyes closed.
The Upside: A compelling and romantic idea, a sweet turn from Zoe Kazan.
The Downside: Poor production value makes it look like a cheap television show, an outsized villain that is not believable, plot movements that make little sense, a slack second act, a wholly ridiculous third act.
On the Side: Brin Hill most recently co-wrote the Chris Brown dance vehicle, Battle of the Year.