Euphonia SXSW

Danny Madden‘s Euphonia is a love story between a boy and his digital recorder. It’s an experimental work with plot momentum that intensifies imagery through pristine, almost violently clear sound design. With moments of zen-like beauty and maddening disorientation, it might just be the most inventive coming of age story since Never Let Me Go.

In the film, a high schooler (Will Madden) is desperately bored, crawling through his suburban existence and hating every minute of it. He trades clever notes with a cute classmate (Maria DeCortis), laments the lack of a good radio station and passes dull days with his friend (Benjamin Papac). On a whim, he starts recording everything with a digital mic, and while it lets him appreciate the smallest wonders in life, it also places a barrier between him and truly experiencing the world.

Even with the becoming-too-common theme of pointing out how technology has gotten in the way of real human interaction, it’s refreshing to see a story built around a different device. As opposed to cell phone addiction, our hero’s recorder offers a genuinely vibrant escape that does a lot to amplify his joy and his adventurousness. Going on that journey is a lot of fun. Danny Madden uses some amazing hi-def visuals matched with powerful sounds to create a heightened sense of reality that brings minutia into focus. Effectively, we hear the best possible version of what the recorder is picking up. The result is that the noise of leaves rustling or a bicycle tire spinning seem to emanate inches away from the ear no matter where they are on the screen, and it’s startling how effective toying with what we hear can translate into changing what we see. Not to mention blurring the lines between where technology ends and we begin.

Of course, without grounding performances from Will Madden (who has that ultra rare combination of looking like a real person while being able to act at a pro level) and DeCortis (who has a young Natasha Lyonne thing going on), this movie would be little more than a time-waster. Yes, the sensory experiences are wondrous, but it’s the story that matters here, and Will Madden and DeCortis are able to make it all look effortless. They have the kind of chemistry that starts laboratory fires, and both will have solid careers if they want them.

In fact, the anchoring neo-rom-com tropes (and the actors’ naturalistic appeal) profoundly help when the experimentational elements veer off course. Danny Madden allows a bit too much room for the concept to breathe. They serve well for showing subtle shifts in personality, but several long stretches of discovery aren’t wholly necessary and they often drag. Some will be ensorceled, but most of the magic wears thin (especially by the time our leading man discovers the joy of the sound of cleaning his house). A gimmick is a gimmick is a gimmick.

So there’s a bit here that could be done without (which might actually push this 50-minute film closer into short film territory), but overall Euphonia impresses with excellent character developments and inventive solutions to different plot problems. Exploring the idea of replacing a boring world with exactly what you want to hear is a fascinatingly relevant one — and here at least, we get a glimpse of how that can block out elements of surprise, discovery and growth. A device has created a new way to connect with the world, but as soon as it becomes the obsession, the world starts to take a backseat.

The Upside: Intelligent experimentation with a plot at its core; great performances by the young leads; impressive visuals and, of course, sound design

The Downside: The experiment can get in its own way occasionally, converting a slow burn pace into a drag

On the Side: The term “Euphonia” isn’t so much a word as it is a bird.

Grade: B

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