The Exploding Girl represents an admirable cinematic pursuit: It’s a movie predicated on finding meaning in silence and what’s left unsaid. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray works to draw out the impact of a pause in conversation, or a furtive glance, to find the drama in the image of a character thinking, or feeling. It’s a rare and welcome attempt to stand apart from an overheated, frenetic film culture. Zoe Kazan, his star, excels at the sort of sly understatement required — any “exploding” done by her character Ivy is fully internalized.
She’s a college student at home on spring break, undergoing that standard, strange interruption of “normal” life. Her boyfriend Greg and most of her other friends have dispersed to their own places of residence, leaving her with no one to hang out with but her good buddy Al (Mark Rendall). Ivy suffers from epilepsy but seems to be a normal, well-adjusted young adult living a healthy, productive life. Yet, slowly, cracks emerge, beginning with the missed calls and long, awkward pauses that define her onscreen interactions with Greg — or more accurately, Greg’s voice.
Gray shuts out extraneous details and zeroes in on Ivy, tailoring his aesthetic to eye-level views of her daily routine, which involves a lot of walking through the city and/or hanging out in various parks and on rooftops, in classic NYC tradition. It is, at once, as convincingly specific and broad as such a depiction could be, with the purposelessness of long days with nothing to do set against the warm glow of the bustling springtime city entwined with the particular details of a young woman coming apart at the seams.
The writer-director scripted the picture for Kazan (Revolutionary Road, Me and Orson Welles), the up and coming actress threatening to break out in a big way in 2010. She proves herself worthy of what was a notable gamble, conveying the doe-eyed sadness that heretofore was the sole forte of Zooey Deschanel. It’s thoughtful work, communicative and open without the usual crutches screenwriters give their actors. It takes a special talent to inspire audience interest in a character crossing a street, or organizing a kitchen. Kazan — who, as Ivy, makes such great use of the suggestive powers of her pixie, vulnerable features that she always seems to be thinking and processing much more than she’s saying — sustains that investment. As Ivy listens to Greg haltingly explain, over the phone, why they should start seeing other people Kazan shows us her character’s heart breaking with no more than a slight shift in expression and the subtle slowing of her walking pace.
It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see a movie so attuned to the rhythms of daily life, to the ways a trauma builds and expands over time, rather than sinking in during a single moment of discovery. When individuals suffer a breakdown of sorts, when they find their most ingrained preconceptions called into question, the unfolding of the drama therein often closely resembles the vérité slow burn of The Exploding Girl.
Gray has a tough time shepherding Ivy through the movie’s final third, losing sight of the precise approach that’s sustained it and incorporating one lazy, overextended visual motif. The picture meanders purposefully, expecting that its collection of mundane moments inflected with a serious soul will collectively create a character worth caring about. For that reason, it’s not the most viscerally involving of movies, but Kazan rewards Gray’s patience with a quiet, self-contained performance imbued with barely concealed pain. She makes Ivy’s journey one worth taking.
The Upside: Zoe Kazan gives a perfectly calibrated, subtle performance and writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s script is well attuned to ways of the real world.
The Downside: The movie, so reliant on the collective power of a series of superficially mundane moments is, at times, less than riveting.
On the Side: For her work, Kazan won the Best Actress Award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.