Tribeca ’09: The Exploding Girl, Still Walking
Quiet, no-nonsense naturalism appears to be in vogue for a lot of younger, gifted Amerindie filmmakers these days, from Aaron Katz and Ramin Bahrani to Kelly Reichardt and Sugar duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, all of whom, coincidentally or not, hail from New York City. Why so many urban writer-directors are gravitating toward a style of filmmaking we associate with a state of repose and reflective distance, and with a specifically East Asian emphasis on time and formalism, while a previous generation of renegade Gotham filmmakers drew on Euro-arthouse dystopia and the anarchic energy of a big, teeming metropolis, has been the subject of very little discussion or sociopolitical analysis in cinema circles. (More on that in a future post.) Add to this unofficial school of poetic minimalism Bradley Rust Gray (Salt), whose second film, The Exploding Girl, debuted in the Berlinale Forum and screened Friday for the press at Tribeca.
Cherub-faced, epileptic college student Ivy (Zoe Kazan) arrives at her mother’s house in Brooklyn on a break from school and pals around with her sweetly awkward hipster buddy, Al (Mark Rendall), a childhood friend who’s invited to crash on Ivy’s couch when he learns his parents have rented out his bedroom. The platonic couple lounge in the park reading books, talk about marriage and kids, go to a dorm-style party, and aimlessly wander the clangorous New York streets with an innocence and ease that suggests there’s a romantic depth to their rapport. Al’s clearly enamored of Ivy, who has a boyfriend back on campus, but he’s hesitant about revealing this fact, not wanting to compromise the intimacy and comfort of their friendship. Ivy, meanwhile, is quietly devastated when the guy she’s stuck on breaks it off over the phone, an unpleasant turn of events she seems to have sensed coming all along. Gray doesn’t press this plot point for dramatic impact; instead, he allows Kazan (granddaughter of Elia and a budding talent) a few solitary moments to register tiny shifts of tone in her expressive face, patiently mapping Ivy’s inner angst in long takes, without giving her a single word of dialogue to voice how she’s actually feeling. Though never emotionally heavy-handed—even Ivy’s grand-mal seizure, brought on by the stress of her ebbing self-confidence and romantic disappointment, is observed from afar, through a half-closed door—The Exploding Girl is an affecting drama that feels not just true-to-life, but honest and mature, too, considering how rutted the road to twentysomething verité is becoming in slo-core indie American talkies. What makes it truly special, though, are the weld of Gray’s artfully composed exterior shots and the gorgeous HD cinematography of Eric Lin. The penultimate sequence, filmed at a rooftop pigeon coop during the magic hour, is breathtaking, a seemingly random moment where the beauty of birds taking flight matches perfectly the tender young love about to hatch.
Emotional tension of a different sort colors a family gathering in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking, a wryly funny, meticulously observed drama about loss, mourning, and the impact of aging on a middle-class Yokohama clan. While it’s tempting to invoke Ozu’s Tokyo Story in discussing the film—an elderly couple spends time in the company of their grown-up children, Ozu-like shots of their tranquil village punctuate the film, and there’s even a widowed daughter-in-law analogous to Setsuko Hara’s Noriko—Kore-eda is less interested in generational conflicts than he is in the effect of time’s passage on grief and the two-way disappointments that often define parent-child relationships.
Much of the story centers on the strained relationship between 40-year-old Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and his stern father Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a proud retired physician who’s never disguised his disapproval of Ryo’s decision to pursue a career in art restoration. As the reason for their low-key contretemps gradually comes into focus—the absent guest at this annual homecoming is eldest son Junpei, who drowned 15 years earlier and in whose honor the relations have assembled—Kore-eda lays the groundwork for his gently unfolding themes of regret and sorrow to play out through the individual experience of his entire cast of characters, each of whom shoulders a private burden. He is particularly attuned to the world of children, and devotes some of his loveliest images to evoking the curiously solemn cast of mind of Ryo’s fatherless stepson (Shohei Tanaka), who the old folks have nicknamed The Unsmiling Prince. The Yokoyamas might bicker and squabble and hide their true feelings from each other—Ryo is reluctant to tell his father he’s unemployed, and his mother (Kirin Kiki) doesn’t know how to tell her bright-spirited daughter Chinami (YOU) not to move in with them—but they aren’t an unusual or dysfunctional family. Despite Kyohei’s brusque manner and intentionally callous remarks, and the fact that everyone’s fatigued with the mass interaction by the time evening rolls around, they cook and eat and laugh and talk together with evident affection. Gently, over the course of a day, we’re privy to a panorama of minor conflicts and hard-to-resolve, built-up resentments, culminating in the playing of an old recording, “Blue Lights of Yokohama,” that serves as a jibe for a long-ago indiscretion and a nostalgic totem of this family’s rueful bond. Kore-eda’s graceful, observational style and humanistic sensitivity to these subtle fluxes in group dynamics, as well as the nuances of mourning, marries nicely with his interest in the workings of memory, which has marked his work from the beginning, in films like Maborosi and After Life. Delicate but effective, Still Walking is a gem.