The précis of Bradley Rust Gray’s film “The Exploding Girl” sounds like boilerplate mumblecore. Vacationing college girl Ivy (Zoe Kazan), battling an epileptic condition, has halting and increasingly awkward conversations with the boyfriend she anxiously plays phone tag with. However, her platonic pal Al (Mark Rendall) inches ever closer to becoming something more than just a friend. But in the masterful hands of Gray, this becomes a delicate and gorgeous slice of New York life, brilliantly observed and brimming with emotion.
Much like his wife and filmmaking collaborator So Yong Kim (director of “Treeless Mountain” and “In Between Days,” who also co-edited and co-produced this film), Gray has a visual preference for sustained, intimate long takes. These are very often shot from middle and long distance, with physical obstructions such as doorways, windows and crowds on the street often inserting themselves between the characters and the camera, as well as breathtakingly beautiful cutaways to sky and trees—a late rooftop sunset shot of Ivy and Al accompanied by pigeons flying in formation is a particularly exquisite one. These elements provide a depth that manifests itself in every gesture, every emotionally fraught pause in conversation that is captured by the lens.
One of the great charms of “The Exploding Girl” is how evocatively and accurately it conveys the particularly slow, lazy feel of a New York summer. There are many nice passages of Ivy wandering the streets and lounging at parties, taking needed pauses from the drama of much of her life, not the least of which is her epilepsy which—although kept at bay by medication—constantly threatens to overtake her. Gray’s film derives much of its power from a sensitive and magnetic central performance by the instantly winning Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of director Elia Kazan and daughter of Hollywood screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord). Her every movement and expression lends this film an ncommon grace. Kazan last appeared in a key role in Sam Mendes’ film “Revolutionary Road,” but here she proves immensely capable of being the main attraction. As impressive as all the film’s other collaborators are, Kazan shines as the true emotional center and makes “The Exploding Girl” much more than just a pretty object. And when the dreaded explosion finally occurs, an event we have been anticipating throughout the film, it leads to a quiet yet intense catharsis that is a soul-satisfying conclusion to one of the year’s loveliest films.
“The Exploding Girl” screens on May 2 at the Tribeca Film Festival.