Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, March 13, 2015.
With a couple of awesome exceptions, like Cinema 320, my city doesn’t have a lot of art-house movie theaters. If we’re lucky the local Big Chain will have some independent films showing on the screens in the back hallway (the cool one that sometimes sells beer). Most times the best place to look for more avant garde, indie science fiction films, is by scrolling through streaming options on Netflix or Amazon (or Hulu – they have the complete Criterion Collection, but for sci-fi that usually means uber avant garde). Streaming is today’s equivalent of wandering around the video store looking for something interesting.
THE ONE I LOVE (2014) is a cleverly written, well-acted indie sci-fi movie which I’d stumbled upon after seeing the trailer on IMDB.com. Now, I should clarify what I mean by “sci-fi,” as there are no spaceships flying about, no aliens, and everything takes place on Earth. At its heart, this is a love story, fueled by some bizarre circumstances which could be explained by scientific or supernatural reasoning—you may have to pick for yourself in this case.
A young couple, Ethan and Sophie, were madly in love once upon a time, but have fallen on barren ground in their marriage. Their therapist (Ted Danson, CHEERS and CSI TV series) sends them on a weekend retreat to an isolated estate, where they can reconnect and rekindle their love for each other. There’s been some damage done, and an implied one-time tryst by the husband in the past, and they need some alone time to work things out.
Mark Duplass (THE LAZARUS EFFECT, 2015, and the TV series THE MINDY PROJECT and THE LEAGUE) plays the husband, Ethan, a rather conservative bloke who had been brought out of his shell by his wife Sophie (Elisabeth Moss—Peggie on the AMC series MAD MEN), but seems to have crawled back into it of late. At first, these two seem like a mismatched pair, Sophia full of life and curiosity, loosed onscreen by Moss’s wide-eyed, eager facial expressions for which she’s known. At the beginning of the story, I was somewhat unimpressed by Duplass’ performance, until I realized this was due to the character he was portraying. Ethan’s kind of a lump.
That is, until they discover their doppelgangers. Specifically, Sophia runs into a double of Ethan and Ethan someone who looks and acts just like Sophia. Almost.
The couple are staying in the guest house of the estate. The deserted main house is across the way, and here they discover their doubles. But there’s a catch. The doubles don’t appear unless Ethan or Sophia enters the house alone. When they do, they meet the duplicates of their spouse. Only they’re not exactly identical. Obviously, Moss and Duplass play both parts. And here’s where Duplass shines. Off comes the glasses, relaxed goes his posture. This Ethan is pretty cool, and far more attentive to Sophia. Moss’s duplicate Sophia isn’t a whole lot different from the original, except that she’s a little less naggy and far more appreciative to her “husband.”
At first, the couple openly shares what they discover, but as each —mostly Sophia—discovers the doppelgangers are “better” than the original, things get more secretive. Needless to say, this festers jealousy within the couple’s marital dynamic.
That’s about all I should say about the plot. I probably said too much as it is. It has some interesting twists and decisions by the characters, and how each handles what’s going on. Understated is an understatement, to how these characters react to the situation. They’re walking on eggshells in their marriage already, but as they are presented with an “improved” version of their spouse, they act, well, like real people might. Cautious. Nervous. Jealous, but not in a violent, movie-of-the-week kind of way. Much of this is kudos to writer Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell (whose only other film is the short BYE BYE BENJAMIN from 2006).
THE ONE I LOVE is a methodical, naturally flowing film where you feel like you’re watching real people deal with an otherwise unreal situation. What Ethan does, as his suspicions and jealousy grows, is normal. He really wants to save his marriage, and this place seems intent on widening the rift between them. This film takes a little while to get going with the main plot, at least you think so (things begin happening earlier, unbeknownst to the characters, or the viewer), but I stuck with it. This is one (rare) example where the trailer for the movie was perfect. It made you want to see the movie but gave away even less than I have in this review. So even though the buildup of the main story was gradual, I didn’t mind, because I wanted to know what they were going to find. Of course, here, I’ve told you, but stick with it. It’s worth it.
Let me use a literary simile for a second. If high budget, blockbuster films are like novels, Indie films like this are like short stories. They’re not short in duration, but in scope, because independent films are, by their nature (I’m being general here, there are exceptions) have far less funds to spend on sets, shots, editing and special effects. Perhaps funding is one reason the plot doesn’t allow the two Ethans and Sophias to be in the same room with each other (this eventually happens in an interesting turn of events later in the movie). The feel is more single-camera simple. The sound is picked up from the microphones around the actors more often than bigger budget projects, which rely heavily on techniques like Foley, which introduces studio-generated sounds like footsteps, a page turning in a book and even hands slapping against railings during sound editing. This adds multiple layers of experience to the film.
Yes, I’m learning quite a lot from my film student daughter.
And sometimes, the simpler, basic attributes of movies like THE ONE I LOVE draws the reader in closer into the story if the characters are relatable (made so by good acting, editing, directing and of course writing, to name a few). It never grows stale, progresses quickly (once it gets going), and leaves the viewer with a clever and satisfying ending. You won’t find every explanation at the end, but will be given enough to be content with. I was, at least.
Take an Indie to Lunch, and watch THE ONE I LOVE on most streaming services for free. In this case, I think you’ll be glad you did.