Everyone Says I Look Just Like Her (2010) dir. Ryan A. Balas
Starring: Deidre Herlihy, Jace Nicole, Ryan A. Balas, Joe Swanberg
By Reece Crothers
The tone of Ryan Balas' second feature film, much like it's title, is occasionally reminiscent of middle period Woody Allen, and in its best moments evokes the grim, pretty, heartwrenching moments between intimates in claustrophobic settings that Woody perfected in Interiors and September.
The story follows two half sisters, one white and one black, and their awkward boyfriends, who spend a weekend together in a cozy cabin in the Michigan woods. The girls are waiting for the arrival of their father for the tenth anniversary of their mother's death. In a more traditional film the suggested impending confrontation with the father might make for the climax, but we never get to the father's arrival. Likewise, you might expect the drama to concern itself with issues of race given the different backgrounds of the sisters. Instead the talky story's drama is mostly made up of tiny moments, small disagreements or misunderstandings, while waiting. It's an interesting narrative choice to avoid the expected dramas the filmmakers set up in the first act, but one with not much of a pay off as it also afflicts the film with the same aimlessness as its protagonists.
There is one playful moment of tonal shift when three of the main characters are paid a surprise visit and the movie suddenly feels like it is about to shift into "Halloween" territory. But that moment passes quickly and the film's trajectory returns to a mumblecore chamber piece. I guess if I want to see a mumble-horror I'll have to finally watch the Duplass brothers' "Baghead" (Which I avoided because of "Puffy Chair" but am now reconsidering because of "Cyrus").
The end result here is something like a really intense exercise in an improv-acting class. Everybody digs deep and reaches cathartic emotional moments but it takes a long time to get there and it doesn't all hold together as one thematic whole. That's why acting classes don't have audiences. They are emotionally messy, occasionally profound, but designed for the benefit of the actor, not the spectator. The story's aimlessness robs the film and the audience of the same catharsis that its players seem to reach. The film feels authentic because of the mumble-core aesthetic, like watching someone elses home videos, or like going away for the weekend with two couples who seem to be having a great time but never ask you to join in on the fun. And here they actually don't seem to be having that much fun.
It's one of the mumblecore genre's shortcomings, that it's films so often confuse "awkward" with "dramatic". Perhaps it is a side-effect of the youthful filmmakers behind the films. But the youth of its filmmakers and its protagonists is also mumblecore's greatest asset. It's a catch 22. It's hard to know how to relate to others when you still haven't figured out who you are. That seems to be the central thesis of all of the mumblecore films. It's an astute observation, but the insight often ends there. The filmmakers, like the characters (and often the filmmakers are also the actors playing those characters) are still working through these confusing feelings, still searching for an identity, and they lack the clarity of hindsight.
Co-starring here as the fuck buddy, Joe Swanberg has always been a fascinating filmmaker, but he really blossomed in his last picture "Alexander The Last" because his characters seemed to finally figure things out, finally grew out of the confusion that is so much of your 20s. When I wrote about that Swanberg picture I titled the piece "The Film That Killed Mumblecore" because after that movie I didn't think one could go back to asking the same questions that it already seemed to answer. "Alexander" basically ended the need for further examination of the themes that have dominated the mumblecore films en masse.
While I felt myself craving a more, dare I say it, traditional central narrative to drive the plot forward, I actually enjoyed many of the technical aspects. Balas continues mumblecore's fascination with documentary aesthetics - handheld cameras, over-use of tightly framed shots, low-lighting, etc) and the film feels very intimate and personal. Too much so at first. There is an uncomfortable voyeurism in the frank sexual depiction of the first couple early in the film because we don't know the characters well enough yet to be in bed with them. But as the film plays we slowly get to know the young couple, the visiting sister, her new fuck buddy, and start to care about them too. There is a quiet assuredness in the pacing (that would really have worked with more punch to the dramatic bits) and the restrained use of music is very effective in a few almost transcendent sequences. The best of these comes right at the end.
It's actually the ending that I loved most, and all is usually well that ends well. It is unexpectedly sweet and moving and beautifully shot. The cast stands in a field at sundown and lights paper lanterns that rise and disappear into a darkening sky. That may be the most accurate metaphor for the end of youth in any mumblecore film yet. I'm looking forward to what Balas does next.