As a producer of "The Myth of the American Sleepover" and "The Freebie," Adele Romanski has helped shepherd two of the more insightful American indies about the travails of young adulthood. Stepping behind the camera for her directorial debut, "Leave Me Like You Found Me," Romanski shows herself equally capable of depicting nuanced relationships with this low-key character study. The movie nails the endless rollercoaster of uncertain romantic pursuits.
The set-up is so minimalist it's essentially theatrical. Ex-lovers Erin (Megan Boone) and Cal (David Nordstrom) reunite for a camping trip in Sequoia National Park that doubles as couples therapy. Once convinced they belonged apart, a year of separation has made them eager to share a bed — or, in this case, a tent — once again. Initially, it appears time has served them well; gazing into each other's eyes and exchanging affectionate pleasantries, they're either meant for each other or in denial. As Erin and Cal wander through the lush forest over the next few days, the movie investigates both possibilities.
Of course, their mushy, sentimental lovespeak obscures other reservations, but it's a credit to Romanski's intelligent screenplay that their interpersonal drama emerges naturally over the course of the trip. Although comfortable around each other, Erin and Cal betray their easygoing ways with passing glances and awkward moments by the campfire. Romanski drops small hints at the reasons behind the breakup, deepening the psychological forces at work. An inebriated late-night conversation with other campers culminates with one giving voice to the movie's central question — namely, whether or not one can love "an asshole."
More often than not, Cal seems to fit that description. He rolla his eyes whenever Erin asks him about his other flings over the past year and shoota her down when she suggests they attend a friend's wedding. And yet it's easy to comprehend their bond. Wandering the serene natural backdrop, they become one with their environment and just as subject to the instinct drawing them together as the wildlife surrounding them.
The rudimentary scenario has its limits. "Leave Me Like You Found Me" never arrives at any greater epiphany or takeaway than what's established in the first 20 minutes. A fleeting complication involving the possibility of a bear near their campsite hints at the possibility of a grander narrative in the works, but instead Romanski analyzes her characters in a series of cogent sketches.
Every plot detail provides an excuse for the couple to deepen their self-analysis as tensions rise. "I think we've both changed," Erin says, but since they're only shown in the park, divorced from society and day-to-day routines, it's impossible to confirm that assertion. They're stuck in physical limbo.
Romanski drops scraps to turn this constant war of the words into an investigatory experience with no apparent resolution. Sustained by its two leads, the movie never drags, although it constantly wanders and takes the audience along for the ride. That, of course, signifies their directionless trajectory together: During after-hours confrontations in near-darkness, they hurl insults at each other that imply nothing about their romance is salvageable, but the next day they start from scratch. With its breathtaking final moment, when the couple finally shuts up, "Leave Me Like You Found Me" arrives at the wise conclusion that the only certainty in life is the failure to communicate.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Likely to play well at numerous regional festivals over the next year, "Leave Me Like You Found Me" is too small for a wide release, but seems likely to wind up with a small distributor and a limited release. Don't expect huge returns, but it stands a chance at performing well at a handful of theaters as well as on VOD.