Named after the B-side to The Cure’s “In Between Days” — the tune that provided the title to director Bradley Rust Gray’s wife and filmmaking partner So Yong Kim’s 2006 debut — “The Exploding Girl” is a similarly moody slow-motion maybe love story between a young woman and the male best friend she’s begun to reconsider in a romantic light. While Kim’s film mixed its adolescent angst with the isolation of the newly immigrated, Gray’s is set in more familiar territory, at least to anyone who’s been to a festival in the last few years. It’s mumblecoresque mainly in its milieu of inarticulate, educated 20-somethings — formally, “The Exploding Girl” is more ambitious, a beautifully shot study of bottled up feelings that’s also maddening in its lack of sharp edges.
There’s a medical motivation to its mildness. Ivy (played by up-and-comer Zoe Kazan), “The Exploding Girl”‘s focus, has epilepsy, and while it hasn’t interfered with her leading a normal life and going to college — the film takes place over a summer break at home in New York — it has made her cautious and controlled, striving to subdue any outburst of strong feelings that might set off a seizure. Over a series of seldom returned phone calls, her college boyfriend throws her over for his high school sweetheart, while her childhood friend Al (Mark Rendall), who clearly pines for her, is starting to also consider other girls. These are small strains, sure, but in the film’s ultra-intimate scale, they tower.
Cinematographer Eric Lin’s camera takes in Ivy from afar in public, through doorways at parties and over shoulders on crowded subways, but in private drifts inquisitively close to Ivy’s pensive face. “The Exploding Girl” sustains the sense of a breath being held, but the tension it tries to generate is dissipated by the wateriness of its characters, Ivy a blue-eyed blank, Al puppyish, both paralyzingly nice and neither interesting enough to be worth an investment in the possibility of their coming together.