Dir. Drake Doremus
First love, as has been noted by several writers and artists over the past few thousand years of human existence, is both thrilling and absolutely terrifying in its complete takeover of your previous existence: The steadfast rules of your life get upended and blown apart in a way that is nothing less than intoxicating. Unfortunately, it is exactly that element of all-encompassing preoccupation that makes it so fragile and fraught with danger. And impossible to sustain: When you come back down to earth, it is usually with a resounding crash rather than a gentle footfall.
Drake Doremus' film, about a young British exchange student and an American who fall desperately in love with one another only to have her visa problems continually derail their relationship trajectory, takes a fractured, docudrama approach to this narrative. Similar in style to last years brilliant Blue Valentine, Doremus opts for the shaggy intimacy of handheld cameras and unscripted dialogue (much of the film, it has been reported, was improvised by the young actors), to allow the characters to steep on screen. Anna (Felicity Jones) yearns to be a journalist, keeping detailed loving notebooks of her time spent with Jacob (Anton Yelchin), an earnest furniture designer, who makes Anna a chair for her writing desk and repeatedly meets her at the airport with flowers.
With Anna's visa problems front and center, it eventually becomes clear to the young couple that they could speed things up considerably by getting married, but when that still doesn't get her paperwork through, they each seem to give up on the dream, and move on to other people. Anna hooks up with one of her apartment neighbors (Charlie Bewley), a stylish young gent with perfectly tousled hair and a penchant for healthy living while Jacob ends up with one of his assistants at his studio, a pretty blonde (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who seems completely devoted to him.
Despite both landing on their feet, however, Anna and Jacob can't seem to fully let go of one another, which is where the film begins to show signs of stretching itself a bit too thin. In adopting the quasi-doc approach, Doremus creates his characters with short, choppy scenes, as likely to yield little or no direct information as to be illuminating. It makes for a refreshing kind of brevity, but it doesn't give the audience as much to emotionally grasp onto when things start turning sour. One scene in which the couple argue in her London apartment, is far less powerful than it could have been, because -- even two-thirds of the way through the film -- we really know very little about them. In keeping the film so clipped and spontaneous, Doremus has shortcircuited the emotional impact he hopes to make. It also doesn't help that, other than their relationship, the rest of their lives are remarkably harmonious and worry-free. Their careers are steadily moving up, their friends abundant and caring, their well-to-do lifestyles virtually assured. Part of the reason Blue Valentine was so devastating is we had a very palpable sense of the awfulness of where the characters will end up without each other. Here, it seems as if they are each other's sole burdens.
There are certainly more egregious cinematic sins than making a film too ephemeral for its own good (perhaps James Cameron could stand to use a viewing or two), but as much as we're asked to care about the couple -- indeed it's virtually the entire fabric of the film -- it's not enough to see them simply disintegrate. For them, life will very assuredly go on.