Late adolescence has always been the stuff of which movies are made. It’s not just the poreless skin and nubile limbs but the high voltage of early adulthood that naturally lend themselves to cinema — which is why is the films that fetishize the flat affect of their young subjects (think “Juno,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) miss the boat. Say what you will about “Remember Me” and “The Exploding Girl,” both about NYC-based college students, but they burrow past that sardonicism to nudge at the unruly emotions that it veils — albeit with mixed results.
It’s hard to discuss “Remember Me” without divulging the elephant in the room, and that’s a shame. Although this ditty about two pretty, broken lovebirds would never have been a groundbreaker, it might have worked better had it not labored under the shadow of a recent event that should never be pillaged as a deus ex machina and in general has yet to work onscreen. Suffice it to say it takes place in the very late summer of 2001.
Tyler (“Twilight”er Robert Pattinson) has been angry at the world, especially his rich daddy (Pierce Brosnan, as bemused as ever), since his older brother’s suicide. When he seduces NYU student Ally (“Lost”‘s Emilie de Ravin) on a dare after a tussle with her agro cop dad (Chris Cooper), he — you guessed it — falls in love. The ensuing courtship outstrips a lot of celluloid young love because the two recognize their shared, pained bravado (she witnessed her mom’s murder as a child) as something to be shed rather than sported as an accessory. It helps that their banter is relatively agile, with none of the punctuation storm of overly hyphenated phrases and dragging ellipses that dooms so much dialogue. And New York actually seems like New York, with a broad visual range frankly dictated by class, and a genuine score rather than a paint-by-numbers soundtrack. It’s just too bad that the film’s not-unpleasantly soapy plot structure can’t sustain the enormous toll its ending takes.
As for swoony Rob, who also takes executive producer credit, he’s far more palatable here than as the sullen Cullen. Perhaps he’s that rare male actor, like the once-dreamy Robert Redford, who takes his cues from his female costar. When acting against dead-eyed Kristin Stewart, he reads as catatonic, but with sassier de Ravin he ramps it up, even allowing the occasional facial expression to tug at his finely chiseled features. That said, he’s so pretty that his beauty distracts even him — like Brad Pitt or Brosnan himself, the verdict’s won’t be in about whether he can actually act until the bloom comes off that rose.
“The Exploding Girl” may also focus on a college-aged boy and girl in late-summer NYC, but it operates on a much smaller, more tolerable scale. Written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray, it shares a wistfulness with the strong coming-of-age saga “In Between Days,” which Gray cowrote with his wife, director So Yong Kim. In this film, Ivy (Zoe Kazan) and her best friend Al (Mark Rendall) perch at her mom’s apartment in the last days of their summer break. Though she’s trying to keep it together, Ivy’s boyfriend back at school has grown increasingly distant and the stress is triggering her epilepsy. Al’s concerned, but he’s also concerned with summoning the courage to ask out a girl he fancies, as well as with maintaining his partying pace while remaining a decent houseguest at Ivy’s mom’s. That’s about the sum of it, but when you’re 20 years old, that’s more than enough.
Even as they creep nervously around the big emotions that threaten to swallow them whole, Al and Ivy court a deeper connection with each other and with the world at large. Scenes are a pastiche of small activities, of milkshakes outside of delis and cellphone exchanges drowned out by the exhilarating, lonely cacophony of city streets.
In her first starring role, Kazan as Ivy vacillates wonderfully between insecurity and insouciance. She may be girlish, but a formidable womanhood looms as a goal if not an eventuality. She’s careful with her mother and with her beau on the phone — only with Al does she occasionally vibrate with a sweet, easy bossiness.With everyone, however, she is so frustratingly self-contained that her growing sorrow reads as mere social diffidence.
For, unlike the characters in films like Andrew Bujalski‘s “Beeswax” and “Funny Ha Ha,” Al and Ivy are uncomfortable with their discomfort. You get the sense that they are burning for love but are blocked by their fears rather than ambivalence or psychological laziness, that their shambling passive aggression will be replaced by a bold sincerity as they grow up. Shot at oddbot angles and adrift in dreamy reveries and awkward, noisy silences, this film may strike a Mumblechord, but it is distinguished by a sharp, palpable longing that is nothing if not French.