Directors and screenwriters Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim know how to make exceptional movies. Since 2003, the married filmmaking team has created some of the most poignant, understated and underappreciated independent films of the past decade – Salt (2003), In Between Days (2006), Treeless Mountain (2008), and most recently, The Exploding Girl (2009). The quality of their work stems from an appreciation for minimalist storytelling and outstanding character development. Long, extended takes where seemingly nothing significant happens and an eye for the slightest details creates scenes of poetic beauty unlike any other onscreen. Kim’s In Between Days and Gray’s The Exploding Girl are both films dependent on these techniques to tell moving coming of age stories about their young, female protagonists.
In The Exploding Girl, Zoe Kazan (Elia’ granddaughter) stars as Ivy, a 20-year-old college student returning home for her spring break. Her best friend Al (Mark Rendell) spends the week with her at her Brooklyn apartment. As Ivy’s relationship with her boyfriend Greg, who we never see, begins to crumble and Ivy spends more time with Al, she reevaluates her life and her relationship with Al.
The film’s title, The Exploding Girl, refers to Ivy’s little mentioned epilepsy, although the possibility of Ivy having a seizure causes some tension throughout the film. What the film effectively captures is not this literal explosion (so to speak) but rather the slow, gradual implosion of Ivy’s life and how it weighs on her mind and understanding of herself. And this realization is just stunning to watch.
For 79 minutes this very simple story of finding oneself and love unfolds on the screen. Ivy and Al attend parties, sit in the park, play cards, share meals; they just exist. These scenes are often shot in either tight close-ups, through door frames, or in long takes, where the action takes place in one single shot. This minimalist editing allows the viewer to focus on the subtlety of Kazan’s performance – the tone of her voice as she speaks to her off-screen boyfriend, the pain in her eyes as things slowly fall apart – and to recognize that director Gray is capturing the most banal yet significant moments of a life.
In some ways, Ivy is an extension of Aimee, the shy immigrant in So Yong Kim’s In Between Days. Ivy is an older, more refined version of Aimee, if Aimee had been dealt different cards in life and had she not been a young immigrant adrift in the world. Like Aimee, Ivy is on the verge of collapse although by the film’s conclusion Ivy reaches an understanding about her life that Aimee never finds.