The Closing Night Feature Film at the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival was The One I Love. Directed by first-timer Charlie McDowell, and written by feature film first timer Justin Lader, the film is basically a two-hander starring Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake, Mad Men, Darling Companion) and Mark Duplass (The Mindy Project, Zero Dark Thirty, Darling Companion & Your Sister’s Sister). Acting vet Ted Danson has a small role as a marriage therapist.
Now this is a very, very new film. There’s not a poster, nor a trailer to be found. But there is a clip out there. Prior to Sarasota, the film has screened only at Sundance this past January. Further festivals on the horizon include Newport Beach, Tribeca, Montclair, and San Francisco. So the film makers will be on the move.
By the way, all the images that you’ll see in this review, with the exception of the two above this line – are stills pulled from the clip.
Here’s the skinny. Moss as Sophia, and Duplass as Ethan, play thirty-somethings. They’ve been married long enough for Ethan to have strayed, and so their marriage is on the rocks, at a crossroad, about to hemorrhage, or burst at the seams. Pick one or all of the above as all apply. So they’ve chosen to consult with a marriage counselor, played by Danson.
Danson elects to send them off on a weekend retreat – away from their familiar surroundings, a place where they can just concentrate on finding the spark they once had. Or as Streisand and Redford once called it – The Way We Were. But this new film isn’t anything like that one. It all takes place over one weekend. Years don’t fly by. There’s just one brief flashback and it basically opens the film.
So off they go, to an unnamed in the film, location which turns out to be up in the hills above Ojai, California. You won’t find that fact on IMDB, but McDowell, Lader, and Moss were on hand at the SFF for a post-screening Q & A, and that’s how I know. More on the Q & A later.
Suffice it to say, things go smoothly for a while. It’s a lovely home – fully stocked, fully equipped, and it even has its own separate guest house which is slightly smaller than the main house, but as fully loaded as it needs to be. They have the whole place to themselves.
Now with that much of a lead-in to set the film up for you. I now have to state that I can’t really go any further. Yup, the film has a twist, or a turn, or we can even call it an angle. Per the storyline on IMDB which I will repeat here for you:
Struggling with a marriage on the brink of falling apart, a couple escapes for a weekend in pursuit of their better selves, only to discover an unusual dilemma that awaits them.
In the film we will hear a mention of The Twilight Zone, and we will hear of the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? In case you were wondering, the film’s title The One I Love is the condensed version of the title of a song made famous by The Shirelles in 1959 and then The Mamas & The Papas in 1967- This is Dedicated to The One I Love – which is the closing track of the film.
But there are no aliens, no bloodshed, and no one dies. We might call it a psychological thriller only we’d have to leave out the term ‘thriller’. Which is the expected norm for a film without car chases or explosions. We can safely state that McDowell and Lader do present us with a puzzle, then, they decline to solve it for us. Basically the film depends on Moss and Duplass to deliver the sparkling words penned by Lader along with McDowell’s sure handed direction (which he handles supremely) to make it work so well.
I won’t say that McDowell pulls rabbits out of hat with this film – but I won’t say that he does no such thing either. There are plenty of brilliant moments made even more so by the likeability of Duplass as well as the finely honed crafts of Moss. Duplass’s skills are more physically apparent (hand gestures, arms in motion) and more easily noticed than those by Moss who relies on small changes in facial expressions and angles, but clearly these actors blend effortlessly, without one being more or less effective than the other.
The set designed is just perfect, and the changes from main house to guest house work smoothly. I’m ready to call this film a real charmer, but I have to say that there are somethings you might notice. Number one – this is not a film to tire you out with laughter. They take their time in setting up what they set up – and yes, that sentence is purposely ambiguous. There’s plenty to laugh about but the film has a serious side as well.
They take their time in giving you an opportunity to begin to puzzle over what you see. In fact, it is a subtle thing that occurs, and you might even miss it initially.
As for the Q & A moderated by the SFF Director Tom Hall, a question was directed to Elisabeth Moss. The question was something about how much of the film was scripted and how much was improvisational. Moss held firm in her belief that she prefers a full script. She said that it is easier for her to memorize lines than to do the improv side of things.
She then said, that yes there was a short fall in the written script and something approaching about half of the film wasn’t in the original script but was discussed and created AND rehearsed before the shooting. So while not quite ad hoc or improv’d, it wasn’t fully scripted either.
Justin Lared then jumped in to say that he wrote all the parts that the audiences loved. It was an unexpected, funny, and totally tongue-in-cheek remark. Of course, it was made up on the fly. The house roared with laughter.McDowell told us that they’d worked on the film for four years, and had the standard kind of issues – you know, funding would be in place, then it wouldn’t be.
They said there’s no plans for a sequel – however I believe McDowell and the excellent Lared will collaborate again. On a side note, Charlie McDowell is the son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, which also makes him the stepson of Ted Danson. So Charlie has the bloodlines as well as the gears and sprockets in his DNA – and you know something, it shows. I look forward to their next film.
I’m going to score/rate the film at four point zero out of five, and I will recommend it. It is a true piece of cinematic entertainment, and for sure, when you do see it, you will leave the theater with an excited and vibrant crowd buzzing over what they just watched.
Speaking of watching – now it is your turn – The ‘Bacon’ Clip from The One I Love: