On DVD: Zoe Kazan Quietly Blasts to Stardom in Exploding Girl
The title of Bradley Rust Grey's micro-indie The Exploding Girl is a bit misleading - nothing at all explodes here, or implodes, or even rises above chit chat. We're dealing instead with a fiercely modest, pint-sized movie that flirts with the mumblecore aesthetic, but, in the end, emerges with its own quiet personality. Realism is still the most difficult special effect, and Grey's film is a minor-key beauty with nothing on its mind more important than a big-eyed co-ed with frumpy bangs. While you're watching, you're not sure why you're supposed to have more on your mind, either.
It's Grey's second movie, and his calculations pay off: We watch his heroine (Zoe Kazan) with such enormous patience that when the romantic moment she pines for arrives, silently and in a grand, intimate two-minute pan, it's a revelation. It helps that our expectations have been brought so definitively to earth; everything about where Grey puts his camera and how his people interact tells us no earthquakes are in the forecast. Kazan's Ivy comes home to Manhattan for spring break, flush with a new boyfriend at school. It's clear she's the kind of kid that rarely appears in movies: smart but self-effacing, responsible, steady, relaxed. (She's also epileptic.) Her Art Garfunkel-y buddy Al (Mark Rendall) shows up on her doorstep (his parents left town on vacation and didn't tell him or leave a key), so he flops on her mother's couch. They dawdle, chat, sleep, play cards, wander the city. As Al regales Ivy with news of his budding romantic interests, she gets summarily (but very politely) dumped by her boyfriend, via cell phone.
By way of gestures, pauses, things unsaid and other things said badly, it slowly becomes clear that it's Al that Ivy really wants. How to broach that reality without destroying the friendship is as much of a plot stake as Grey gives us. His visuals are uncontrived and restrained, often shooting his actors across the street or park and letting them interact with the crowds, and he manages what might be the loveliest New York-rooftop dusk shot ever recorded. But Grey seems mostly adept at letting the characters happen without his meddling. Mostly, idle time is his strategy of choice; no one explains themselves or vents. We get close because we earn it.
So it feels as though the actors carry the day. The Exploding Girl bobs along without incident for a while before we realize that we're hooked by Kazan, just as we'd all be hooked in real life by such a gentle, squirrel-cheeked, slightly zaftig sweetheart with big hazel eyes. (Because she's not really gorgeous, she kinda is.) We've seen her before in Me and Orson Welles and Revolutionary Road, but this tiny movie is where she evolves into an authentic movie presence. Rendall is never less than convincing and lovable, but it's Kazan's movie, and by the end, you're in her lap.