With his talons firmly entrenched in the Marvel franchise, Joss Whedon’s influence on contemporary popular culture has arguably never been stronger. Still, even as he prepares a second “Avengers” movie for the masses, Whedon remains known not for the grand scale of his productions but the way people talk and act within them. No matter how many hundreds of effects it took to simulate the destruction of Manhattan in “The Avengers,” the movie worked to a large degree because of Whedon’s persistently funny and vibrant screenplay. With this talent in place, it’s no wonder that Whedon founded Bellwether Pictures, a micro budget studio committed to small scale productions — the first of which, a black-and-white adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” shot in the director’s home post-“Avengers,” showed exactly how far outside the contemporary Hollywood tradition his interest lie.
The second Bellwether production, “In Your Eyes,” was written by Whedon and directed by Brin Hill (“Ball Don’t Lie”), and while it lacks the same high-minded literary aspirations, it once again demonstrates the capability of the mini-studio to produce offbeat projects that would otherwise never come to fruition. It’s not a rousing success, but as a lightweight sketch drawn out to uneven feature-length, it manages to deliver a minor entry in the Whedon canon by keeping its most insightful character-driven ingredients intact.
A scruffy romance focused on two characters spread across the country — ex-con Dylan (Michael Stahl-David), trying to get his life back on track in New Mexico, and bored housewife Rebecca (Zoe Kazan), who lives in the shadow of her doctor husband (Mark Feuerstein) — “In Your Eyes” involves a single inexplicable premise to drive its plot forward: Since childhood, the two characters have occasionally seen the world through each other’s eyes; one day in their young adulthood, they see it more clearly than ever, and can hear each other as well.
Sharing sensations and emotions alike, the unwitting pair quickly get over the shock and confusion of their situation and gradually start to bond. The situation plays out with plenty of gently funny moments as the two steadily grow attracted to each other: Dylan helps Rebecca fix her car, Rebecca helps Dylan pick up a local girl at the bar, and the pair casually chat with each other when they grow bored with their current surroundings, leading many people around them to routinely gawk at apparent schizophrenic tendencies.
It’s the ultimate long distance relationship, and Whedon hardly disguises the basic romantic conventions that carry the story more than its vague supernatural twist. As director, Hill mostly stays out way and lets the material carry it. Aside from a few cheap-looking bright flashes and overlays to indicate when the pair experience two places at once, the chief special effect of “In Your Eyes” involves a constant cutting between the two characters as they engage in private monologues. Not altogether unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in “Her,” the device relies on the investment of its two leads; fortunately, both Stahl-David and Kazan are game, imbuing the forlorn pair with a similar fragility that makes their bond seem credible even though they spend almost the entire movie apart.
However, the attraction mostly works because of Whedon’s fingerprints all over the infectious dialogue. As the would-be couple recall their shared emotions over the years, with nothing to hide, they quickly grow candid about their roughest years. (Realizing that she once experienced male teen angst, Rebecca admits, “I often thought you were PMS.” His reply: “A lot of people get us confused.”) One standout moment finds the duo singing along to a catchy pop song on the radio — it’s “Crumblin’,” an original composition by Whedon himself — and their separate dance moves mark one of the more distinctive moments of musical coordination in recent memory.
But elsewhere, the sentimental material goes too far, particularly one very overplayed sex scene that pushes the absurd premise beyond its breaking point. Whedon’s script also struggles to match its main protagonists with equally engaging stories: Plot threats involving Rebecca’s history of mental health disorders and Dylan’s criminal past coming back to haunt him have awfully half-baked qualities that stand out and hold back the romance from reaching the sophistication it aims for.
Nevertheless, with its modest treatment of a singularly clever idea, “In Your Eyes” successfully offers the lightweight alternative to Whedon’s bigger projects: It’s cheesy and slight, but persistently smart and entertaining within those narrow parameters. As such, it demonstrates the value of the Bellwether label by ensuring Whedon’s sensibilities don’t get buried by the spectacles currently overwhelming his career. While the quality of the filmmaking never rises above a certain rudimentary level, the mixture of quirky fantasy and believable characters has a persistently familiar ring. Just as the two characters see the world from each other’s perspectives, we see it through Whedon’s.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released immediately after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere through a Vimeo distribution deal, “In Your Eyes” is currently available online for $5. Given Whedon’s massive fan base and the small scale of the production, it’s almost certain to make a healthy profit.