THE EXPLODING GIRL is a delightfully poignant, deftly-paced, often lyrical dramatic piece and character study. It's the kind of dialogue-based indie film that can't ever be boring, due in large part to its staggering honesty and realistic nature. Some of the reviews will give people the impression that THE EXPLODING GIRL is a chore to get through. What I can say is that that will only be the case for people whose eyes glaze over during emotion-driven, intelligent dramas and who need something simpler to watch. Then again, if you're one of those people, you're probably not reading this, so I'm writing for what I hope is a majority of people who can appreciate this type of film.
Ivy (Zoe Kazan) is returning home, as she's now on break from college. The first thing she does when she arrives is meet up with her best friend, Al (Mark Rendall). They were friends all through school, but they've each gone to a different college, so they only get to see each other when they're home on break. We can tell that this one of those relationships in which a guy and a girl are best friends and totally comfortable with talking to each other, but (of course), there's an underlying, awkward fidgetiness going on that gives one the impression that there may be something more going on here. They don't reveal it to each other, of course, but their eyes quickly reveal it to the audience members. To Al's dismay (but not to ours), his parents rented out his room while he was in college, so now Al doesn't have a place to stay, so of course, Ivy invites him to stay at her place during break. It's only natural, obviously, since they are best friends. This will all make any reasonable moviegoer expect that a few contrivances will happen and soon Ivy will dump her college boyfriend, realize her feelings for Al, and they'll stay together. But no... we get something much more authentic (and hence, much better) in THE EXPLODING GIRL.
This is an incredibly tender movie. The character of Al is developed scrupulously well. He likes to hang out with friends and smoke weed and have fun, but he cares deeply about Ivy, who is a tad more socially awkward. There's a particularly great scene in which Al is lying on a bed in between Ivy and this other girl (with whom he has all the chances in the world to hook up), but he decides to go home with Ivy. And it is NOT one of those "Oh, pfft, that would never happen in real life" moments in movies; the moment is handled in such a sullen and subtle way that we more than believe Al's decision. We don't know for sure if he's in love with Ivy, but there's never any doubt that he cares for her enormously. There's another incredibly well-executed moment in which Al tells Ivy about this girl he's in class with whom he has a crush on. As Ivy and Al talk to each other, the film does a brilliant job at blurring the line between the friendship that these two have and potential romantic feelings that they're keeping bottled up inside.
A lot of the film's running time is dedicated to Ivy's phone conversations with her boyfriend, during which we never SEE her boyfriend (we only hear his voice). This would be a bad idea if it weren't for the fact that it's all staged so amazingly well. Zoe Kazan's reactions during these phone talks are pitch-perfect. A lot of the conversations happen while Ivy is walking on the streets, so there's a constant sense that things are moving forward. And the guy who does the voice of Greg (Ivy's boyfriend) does a terrific job at conveying apprehension. My only problem is with a pivotal moment early on in the film during which Greg tells Ivy that he's had a car accident. I don't have an issue with Kazan's performance when she reacts to this; I just have a problem with the lines that she's forced to deliver, because they are the exact conventional lines that we hear in every movie (and TV show) when someone's been in an accident. Normally, that wouldn't bother me too much, but it does when we're dealing with a movie that thrives on realistic dialogue. But that's merely a nitpick because, to be honest, EVERYTHING else about these phone conversations is handled remarkably well.
The other small flaw to be found in THE EXPLODING GIRL comes towards the end of the film, during an over-extended scene in which Al and Ivy are sitting together, and we get an unnecessary amount of shots of birds flying during a sunset. It's fine if this was meant to be symbolic of something or other, but it's not fine that the shots feel self-indulgent and that they go on for so long. Thankfully, the film's very last scene goes back to the languid tenderness that we had gotten used to throughout the movie and that I thoroughly loved. All I'll say about the last scene is that it's an understated moment in a car, and that it involves hands. It is expertly shot, brings solid emotional heft to the film's coda, and it leaves the ending open to interpretation, which is often a great decision on a filmmaker's part.
THE EXPLODING GIRL is an uncommonly observant piece of indie filmmaking that accurately captures the turbulent confusion that one can experience when going back-and-forth from life in the college environment to life back home. The film recognizes that the idea of leaving people behind and then picking things up where they left off isn't quite so black-and-white, and the emotional turmoil that can come from that type of situation emerges profusely during the interactions between Al and Ivy.