Mike Cahill's directorial feature-film debut sounds like a science-fiction movie, but it's not. Yes, it features the appearance in the sky of an Earth identical to our own, one populated by doppelgangers who may or may not have made the same decisions we have. And yes, it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which goes to movies that focus on science or technology, at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was one of the most talked-about movies. And yes, the dialogue sometimes bandies about concepts like synchronicity (sometimes annoyingly so).
But more than anything, the metaphysics function as a metaphor in what's an affecting - if slow-moving - drama about having to live with the choices we make and our need to find redemption.
Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) is 17 and at a party celebrating her acceptance to MIT, where she plans to study astrophysics, on the night the other Earth first appears in the sky. Driving home drunk, she stares out the window to get a glimpse of the planet and plows into a family in another car, killing the wife and child and leaving the husband, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother), in a coma.
Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison. She moves in to a bare room in her parents' attic and takes a job as a janitor at a high school because she doesn't want to have to talk to people. Desperate to be forgiven, she tracks down Burroughs, who has since awoken and mopes around his filthy farmhouse in his bathrobe. He doesn't recognize Rhoda. And while she knows she should apologize, she can't. Instead, she tells Burroughs she works for a cleaning company and he's won a free trial. He invites her in, and she begins washing the dishes.
The other Earth is still up there in the sky, although, oddly, no one's making much of a fuss about it. There is one crazy man in a tinfoil helmet on the street raving about the planet, one of the movie's few false notes (crazy or not, does anyone seriously wear tinfoil hats?). There's also a janitor Rhoda works with who's more of a spirit guide created for narrative purposes than an actual person.
Rhoda stares up longingly at the other Earth, which provides plenty of conversational fodder for her and Burroughs. What would you say if you met another you? "Better luck next time," Rhoda says. But maybe on that other Earth, Rhoda never got into the accident. Maybe on that other Earth, Burroughs's family is still alive. But if you met a doppelganger, would you even recognize yourself?
It's heady stuff, and the script by Cahill and Marling can plod along like a philosophy lecture. It's slow-going, often ponderous and raises more questions than it answers. It even references Plato's allegory of the cave, a requisite for any smarty pants wondering about the nature of reality. But in a summer dominated by wizards and warring robots from outer space, it's refreshing to see a movie tackling difficult ideas, even if, like the new Earth, it sometimes feels like the filmmakers have their heads up in the clouds.
Thankfully, it's anchored by two great performances and pulled along by the tension of what will happen when Burroughs learns his housekeeper's true identity. Marling spends most of the film in a silent daze, but her every facial gesture and tentative move registers her character's guilt, while Mapother is brilliant as a man festering in tragedy. The two may find love and redemption in one another, but you know the truth will eventually come out.
When Rhoda wins a contest to go to the other Earth, she finally has the chance to resolve all the questions that have been plaguing her. Will she go? There's an excellent twist ending that proves that sometimes you can find the right answers even if you've been asking the wrong questions all along.
- Directed by Mike Cahill
- Written by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill
- Starring Brit Marling and William Mapother
- Classification: 14A