Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Exploding Girl: Bradley Rust Gray

Written by Emily Bennison
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The Exploding Girl, written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray, is an almost meditative, coming-of-age film about a young college student’s spring break. Ivy, played by Zoe Kazan who won Best Actress honors for her performance at the Tribeca Film Festival, arrives home to Brooklyn in good spirits, excited about her relationship with her college boyfriend Greg and happy to be reunited with her mother and longtime friend, Al (Mark Rendall). Upon returning, she helps out at her mother’s dance studio, visits her doctor (where it is revealed that Ivy is epileptic and that she experienced a stress and alcohol-induced seizure during the fall semester), and finds herself with a new roommate; Al’s parents rented out his room and forgot to give him the heads-up, so he finds a new resting place on Ivy’s couch. Their closeness of quarters brings Ivy and Al closer together, as Ivy and Greg’s relationship diminishes with each excruciatingly awkward cell phone call.
The Exploding Girl, written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray, is an almost meditative, coming-of-age film about a young college student’s spring break. Ivy, played by Zoe Kazan who won Best Actress honors for her performance at the Tribeca Film Festival, arrives home to Brooklyn in good spirits, excited about her relationship with her college boyfriend Greg and happy to be reunited with her mother and longtime friend, Al (Mark Rendall). Upon returning, she helps out at her mother’s dance studio, visits her doctor (where it is revealed that Ivy is epileptic and that she experienced a stress and alcohol-induced seizure during the fall semester), and finds herself with a new roommate; Al’s parents rented out his room and forgot to give him the heads-up, so he finds a new resting place on Ivy’s couch. Their closeness of quarters brings Ivy and Al closer together, as Ivy and Greg’s relationship diminishes with each excruciatingly awkward cell phone call.

On the surface of the film, Ivy seems almost dull. She doesn’t appear to have close relationships outside of her friendship with Al and her relationship with her mom. We know that she has a boyfriend and roommate at college, but when she’s feeling at her loneliest she doesn’t reach out to call anyone for support, which is especially surprising given how frequently she checks her phone and calls Greg for the first half of the film. Similarly, in comparison to Al, who seems outgoing, social, and passionate about learning and sharing, we don’t get much energy from Ivy. She is rather quiet and even-keeled, a sharp contrast to the film’s title; there doesn’t seem to be much explosive about her.

But I did say “on the surface.” The truth is that, since seeing the film, I’ve thought more about Ivy than I have about Al. I find her simplicity and independence intriguing. Perhaps her emotional independence is her attempt to feel empowered while living in a body that requires her to be, at times, dependent on others (at one point in the film she has to cancel her bath because her mom is coming home late from the dance studio). Her epilepsy requires her to monitor her alcohol intake (which could explain why she is less comfortable socializing at parties where people are drinking and getting high) and her stress. I can only imagine how needing to manage your body’s reaction to stimuli, to emotions, would make you more introspective and even-tempered. Ivy is a very different character than one is accustomed to seeing on the big screen. She doesn’t tell you who she is nor does anyone else in the film; you’ve got to do some work, and I respect that about this film. Kazan and Rendall are incredibly natural in their roles, which speaks to both their acting skills and the process through which Gray developed these characters, finding inspiration in the actors’ personalities and stories and being open to improvisation.

Gray and his partner (in life and filmmaking), So Yong Kim work closely together on their films supporting one another with directing, editing, writing, and producing. Gray intended for Exploding Girl to be a B-side to Kim’s first film In Between Days—a reference to the B-side track, “Exploding Boy,” on the Cure’sIn Between Days” single. Like many-a-B-sides, Exploding Girl is a different take on the themes and characters of the A-side. Both Exploding Girl and In Between Days are coming-of-age stories about young women navigating relationships with their best male friends amidst feelings of loneliness and isolation. As Gray explains, “The character’s emotions [are] reversed, but the feelings [are] similar.” In In Between Days, a young, recently arrived Korean immigrant has fallen in love with her best (and only) friend, but is scared of losing their friendship.

According to Gray, he and Kim center their films on the theme of love healing loneliness. Their films focus on moments in the everyday lives of their characters; they embrace surprises and accidents in the filming process, and they structure their films around how they imagine the main characters would remember the moments in their lives. Their films have a naturalness to them that makes them stand apart from the rest. In Exploding Girl, for example, in order to make the audience feel as if they are watching the characters from far away, Gray and director of photography, Eric Lin, filmed several exterior shots with a 300mm lens. This allowed them to film half a city block from the action; there are times when cars or pedestrians block the audience’s view of the actors. This allowed the actors and pedestrians to inhabit the streets more naturally and also helps create a sense that these characters are everyday folks and that the audience is watching their lives unfold rather than being told a story polished up for the screen.

The cinematography, combined with the writing, casting, acting, sound design, and editing, helps to create the everyday feeling of the film. This is no Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist where one night gives way to high jinks and adventures and crazy characters and one-night-to-fall-in-love while listening to favorite indie hits. While there are dramatic moments (a breakup, an explosion or two, a confession of love, a deciding moment) Exploding Girl is structured in a way that makes these moments feel natural rather than formulaic. For some, the pace will be challenging, but for those who appreciate a slow-paced film, or who are interested in stretching their comfort zones, I couldn’t think of a sweeter place to start.

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