With “The Exploding Girl,” director Bradley Rust Gray upgrades the routine not-quite-platonic love story with a magnificent sense of visual clarity. The predictable aspects of the plot are masked by an infectious lyricism: Soft spoken college kid Ivy (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia) hangs out with her friend Al (Mark Rendall) over the course of a summer break in New York. The two have known each other since middle school, creating the sort of close bond in which they laugh off the notion of sharing deeper feelings for each other, but only a hint of nervousness. Ivy’s disinterested boyfriend exists only in recurring phone calls, so that his distant relationship with her contrasts with the close connection she develops with Al. Within minutes of the first scene, they beat out Pam and Jim on NBC’s “The Office” (pre-season four, of course) as the most obvious pre-destined couple in recent narrative memory.
Fortunately, “Exploding Girl” transcends its basic premise by probing the scenario with a fine-tuned window into human behavior. It’s a quiet portrait of two people struggling for the right language to frame their confusion. Eric Lin’s magnificent cinematography seals the deal: Expressive colors and gentle movements become as relevant to thematic construction as the characters themselves. Think of it as “When Harry Met Sally” meets an art house aesthetic — in the best way possible.
Ivy’s personal life gets additionally mixed up by her epilepsy, a narrative device that provides the movie with its metaphoric title. Gray skillfully reflects her subjective discomfort until the pressure reaches its breaking point. Kazan’s performance has a welcome fragility to it; she’s like Zooey Deschanel without the overbearing cuteness. The movie works because Kazan never pushes the character into the realm of trite histrionics. No matter how familiar the scenario, “The Exploding Girl” manages to remain satisfyingly credible until the very last frame.