“Just because you haven’t seen something before doesn’t make it supernatural.” It may be the single most important line in “Spring,” an itch that burgeoning young filmmaking team Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (credited as Moorhead/Benson at the end of the film) just can’t stop scratching in their collaborations together. Their career is still in its infancy (2012’s twisty, inventive “Resolution” was their first and they contributed to “V/H/S: Viral”), but they already appear to have strong thematic interests in mind even as they’re still fine-tuning their voice. Like their sophomore effort, released by Drafthouse Films and FilmBuff in limited release and via BitTorrent Bundle, it’s impressive without being spectacular.
This is one of those films where the less you know going in, the better. It’s fair to say that some genre elements start to bubble up and then pretty much burst to the surface by the film’s end, all while remaining a romance at heart. Some have already compared the romantic elements in “Spring” to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” a fair comparison but also a bit misleading, as the writing here is a little spotty at times and the romance a bit rushed even if the gorgeous leads, Lou Taylor Pucci (from the recent “Evil Dead” remake and “Thumbsucker”) and Nadia Hilker, have solid chemistry together and give good performances. The vibe of this film more closely falls somewhere in between the pretty awful “Charlie Countryman” and the pretty great “Simon Killer,” but with a dash of Guillermo del Toro monster tale to spice things up.
It always feels like a lazy criticism to say a film should be shorter, but that’s definitely an issue here. I applaud the ambition by Moorhead and Benson to make more than just a 90-minute quickie genre pic, but the film drags a bit in its first act, taking far too much time to get Pucci’s character to the gorgeous Italian locales, and to the actual story at heart. Some necessary heavy emotional character work is done in the opening scene, but most of the succeeding beats and sequences (involving a boozy road trip with some obnoxious Brits) feel perfunctory at best and excessive at worst, especially considering where things go once Pucci meets Hilker and the story proper takes off. And there’s a sneaking suspicion the filmmakers aren’t really all that interested in their “monster,” or really know what to do with it, so they occasionally add a throwaway scare or kill an idiotic nothing character to sate base genre concerns without really pulling it off.
Fans of Jimmy LaValle AKA Album Leaf may be disappointed by his effective, but low key and familiar score. Despite a few great, ethereal moments here and there (like this this track), it’s just a tad bit too subtly employed as a backdrop to all the pretty imagery and mystery, so the memory of it fades once the credits roll. His work is known for its use of electronics, synthesizer and Rhodes piano, all of which is on display in the score for “Spring,” often reminiscent of Michael Andrews’ work on “Donnie Darko.” The moment where the aforementioned track plays over a lovely, slow-mo steadicam shot as the leads see each other for the first time is highly evocative (without feeling like a ripoff) of the memorable “Head Over Heals” high school sequence from “Donnie Darko,” the camera floating around and picking up little character moments, introducing the players (and, boy, does the camera love Hilker, who gets a great introduction here). The music is representative of the film, actually: there’s good stuff in it but it hasn’t been honed enough, or realized to its fullest potential.
There are strong elements and ideas at work in “Spring,” and Moorhead and Benson certainly have my attention moving forward. It would seem, though, that they’re still finding their voice and how to best communicate their good ideas — confident long takes and camerawork, skillful snap edits, a sense of mystery, narrative left turns, complex characters, bizarre sense of humor, and a desire to break new ground — before they will make something really impactful. In a way, I’m being a bit hard on the film, but that’s because there’s potential in it and because it’s very clear the filmmakers have talent. Hopefully the next time Moorhead and Benson set out to subvert expectations and familiar genre tropes, they’re able to accomplish that on all ends of the production. This time out they stretched a single into a double, which is all well and good, of course. But they could hit a few out of the park some time in the future. [C+]
(Below you can stream/download a special preview cut of the latest episode of my film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, featuring an in depth discussion of “Spring.” The full episode (#105) can be found here. You can also subscribe to Adjust Your Tracking via iTunes – Thanks!)