Another Earth


Sometimes you have to wait to read a book or see a movie, because you need to be in a “certain place” first.  I’m still not sure what place I had to be in to go see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, but having been interested in this fascinating piece of art since its announcement, I waited a good amount of time to get there.  So long, in fact, that I caught the final showing in the entire district, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatre, about five minutes from where I was born.

The story begins with Rhoda Williams (writer and actress Brit Marling), an MIT-bound high school graduate.  At a party, she has too many drinks, and drives home to the sounds of a local hip-hop radio station.  The DJ mentions in passing that a new planet has been discovered, and according to scientists, it’s capable of supporting life.  Tonight, it will appear as a blue spot somewhere close to the moon.  Peering out her window and spotting the blue spot in the sky, Rhoda speeds through an intersection and smashes into an SUV, killing the wife and young child of John Burroughs (William Mapother), whom we later learn is a respected composer and college professor.  He is rendered comatose in the accident.

Four years later, John comes out of his coma and Rhoda is released from prison.  Her family (parents and obnoxious younger brother) pick her up as casually as if they were picking her up from school.  We are spared any of Rhoda’s prison experiences, and no specifics are hinted at, but it’s clear that her drunken accident and jail time have thoroughly recolored her personality.  Once an ambitious, talkative, social young woman, Rhoda now sleeps in the attic, owns nothing, hardly bathes, and doesn’t talk.  The very act of existing seems an unfair burden.  Interactions with her family are awkward.  She sees a job counselor, and after the latter comments on her impressive intellectual aptitude, refuses to do a job that requires thinking or talking to people.  She settles for a maintenance job at a local high school, where she works alongside elderly janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pallana) and barely looks a year older than the students who graffiti the bathrooms.

Content to scrub her days away (a well-achieved analogy for a deeper figurative “cleaning”), Rhoda decides to apologize to John for her mistake.  Discovering him in a house not unlike a pig’s wallow, she loses her nerve and claims she is from a cleaning service.  He “hires” her to fix up his disaster of a home, and through one thing and another, they become friends, with Rhoda never revealing who she is.  According to the rules of narrative (especially in film), she must reveal it eventually, and the scenes leading up to this conversation are unbearably tense.

The new about Earth 2 is always progressing, but wisely kept in the background until it becomes relevant to a choice Rhoda must make.  Astronomers and physicists are brought in to attempt first contact when the planet moves visibly closer to Earth.  After various tries, contact is finally achieved, only to reveal that this planet is an exact mirror of Earth, with all of the same people, who have followed the exact same life paths up to this point.

Here is a film that could have broken the rules of narrative we all accept and expect.  Rhoda’s depressions are spot-on accurate and heartbreaking.  She drags herself through work, punishing herself with a job she’s not suited for.  One night, she wanders out into a field, strips completely naked, and lies down in the snow until she passes out.  She awakens in the hospital with her family, who appear as though they almost prefer she’d died.  The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is her predilection for outer space.  She pays close attention to the news stories (the only reason we get to see/hear them), and when a billionaire entrepreneur holds an essay contest (500 words or less) with a grand prize of traveling to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.  Eventually, a theory comes out stating Earth and Earth 2 were identical in every way until the very moment we made contact.  After that exact moment, lives changed, different decisions could have been made, and all bets are off.  What if the version of Rhoda on Earth 2 didn’t kill John’s family?  What if they’re still alive and she’s an MIT student?

Cahill’s cutting, his use of the handheld camera, and his joint decisions with Marling (co-writer of the script) about what is said and what is shown, are astounding for a film of this age.  We understand the connection between Rhoda and Purdeep even when nothing is said.  They’re both lost souls, punishing themselves for past sins.  They understand each other and speak their own language, and we understand it without having it fed to us.  Their final scene together (after Purdeep has blinded and deafened himself because he can no longer “stand to see himself everywhere”) displays a mastery of visual storytelling thus far unmatched this year.  There are also tiny details which could have been ruined with fat blocks of dialogue – on a few occasions, John offers alcoholic drinks to Rhoda.  She apprehensively lets the liquid touch her lips, but never really drinks it.  She never says to John (and by extension, the audience), “I don’t drink because [insert lie for strained tension].”  We know why.  The tension is increased tenfold because she does this without John even noticing.  Despite the temptation to expand the background sci-fi into a full-blown mythology, the film wisely keeps us with the characters, namely Rhoda, and we’re barely allowed to care about anything she doesn’t care about.

On the verge of a romantic relationship with John (likely twice her age), Rhoda wins the essay contest and decides to go to Earth 2.  Yes, she reveals her true identity to John and yes, unfortunately, he reacts how you’d expect him to.  Thankfully, this revelation doesn’t solve anything; quite the contrary.  The conflict we had at the beginning of the story now resurfaces and needs to be resolved, and a certain character’s actions provide a solution so pure, so wholeheartedly selfless, that we’re simultaneously satisfied and pining for a different way.  This action doesn’t go unrewarded, however.  The final scene of the film is something I cannot spoil.  I’m willing to wait until you see the film to talk about it.  Suffice it to say it’s a stinger and a surprise without being a twist or a sequel hook, it’s a massive payoff without being contrived, and it fits the movie’s fictional science without providing a be-all-end-all solution to the complex issues of an entire planet (much less two).  I suspect lesser filmmakers would have gone for something much, much different.

The background story of Another Earth is more the stuff of science than the stuff of fiction.  At least, it’s based on a long-standing (but generally debunked) theory that a mirror Earth exists directly opposite us in orbit, and because it’s an exact mirror, the sun is always blocking us from seeing the other planet.  The way this information is conveyed in the narrative (non-glamorized news and narration by real-life scientist Richard Berendzen) is much stronger than the overwritten mumble-science of a film like Primer.

One of this story’s frequently asked questions is, “What would you say if you could meet yourself?”  John’s answer (“Hey, you up for a video game?”) and Rhoda’s answer (“Better luck next time.”) are so rigidly different and the performances of Marling and Mapother are so honest that after this film, even with such a seemingly preposterous background, I had to think about my answer.  Whatever that “place” was, I was there.  It was a long ride home.

Another Earth (2011); written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling; directed by Mike Cahill; starring Brit Marling and William Mapother.

Our Idiot Brother

Comedy in B Major

In Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother, we get a triptych of beautiful women whose personal lives seem to gravitate around one guy: their brother.  This might be a good film with which to try the old gender unfairness challenge – see if you can find a scene in this movie where two or more women (with names) talk to each other about something other than a man (in this case the brother in the title) and/or something influenced by him.  Even in a film with a principally female cast, such as this one, it’s a tall order.

Our Idiot Brother is a good-hearted comedy (albeit with enough F-bombs to destroy a small country) about a sweet guy.  In Ned (Paul Rudd, looking like one of the Avett Brothers), we get perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and misunderstood character since Del Griffith.  His sisters, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), and Liz (Emily Mortimer) have dysfunctional relationships with each other, Ned, and their mother (Shirley Knight), who drinks her pain away and seems to be the only one who cares about Ned.

At the outset of the story, Ned is entrapped by one of the evillest police officers in film history, and put in prison after inadvertently selling the officer marijuana.  When he returns home, his girlfriend, Janet (Kathryne Hahn), a hypocritical hippie (hippie-crit?), has dumped him for another guy (T.J. Miller) without telling him.  Ned is now homeless.  The story threads progress, tie together and come loose as Ned moves in with one sister after the other, attempting to help them with their problems but always messing something up due to his unbridled sensitivity.  Promiscuous Natalie’s relationship with her loving partner, Cindy (Rashida Jones) hits the rocks when the former becomes pregnant after a one-night stand; Ned must be the bearer of bad news.  Liz and her controlling husband (Steve Coogan) shield their young son from everything he loves; Ned is the only one who understands, and interferes (with the best intentions, of course).  Miranda and her nerdy roommate (Adam Scott) get along fine until Miranda scores an interview with a famous dignitary, who would much rather talk to Ned.

The film plays out in an evenly-paced, well-timed comic narrative centered around a character with a great heart, a good man who knows only how to be good.  He’s forgiving, understanding, and gives even the worst of people the benefit of the doubt (including Liz’s cheating husband).  He even feels terrible for declining a threesome when he realizes another man is involved.  Some scenes will have you cracking up, and some will give your heart a tug when you’re least expecting it (particularly a scene featuring a game of charades with Ned’s entire family).

Paul Rudd’s performance is the stuff of mystery.  Who knew he had this kind of role in him?  We know he can be a protagonist and a straight man to Steve Carell’s funny guy, but his performance in Our Idiot Brother blends these archetypes into something unique and welcome.  It’s a genuinely sweet story in a sea of gross-out comedies.  A relationship between two women is portrayed as serious, committed (mostly) and never as the butt of a joke.  There’s even a dog with an interesting name – watching a bearded Paul Rudd running through the streets of New York shouting “Willie Nelson!” as bystanders look on in befuddlement is the perfect exclamation point.

Rudd’s next role, aside from garden variety comedies, is in an adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I don’t know if I’d call it an opportunity to show us he’s prolific, but if he wanted to shake his typecasting, especially after a performance like this, I’ve no doubt he could.  I, for one, will root for him.

Our Idiot Brother (2011); written by Evgenia Peretz; directed by Jesse Peretz; starring Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, and Emily Mortimer.