The opening shot of writer-director Carlos Marqués-Marcet's "10,000 KM" ("Long Distance") lasts 23 minutes, and each moment is well-earned. Following a heated sexual encounter between Spanish couple Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer), the camera continues to watch as they discuss their intentions of having a baby. Then the situation gets complicated, with Alex confessing her opportunity to leave Barcelona for a yearlong residency in Los Angeles; at first excited for his partner, Sergi grows increasingly agitated before eventually accepting the challenge. It's the last time we see the characters sharing the same space for over an hour — during the majority of the movie, they struggle to maintain a close relationship through virtually every form of communication at their disposal. The long take epitomizes the deep bond that remains fractured for the rest of the story.
The bad vibes settle in fast: From the smoothly executed beginning, "Long Distance" switches to a fragmented approach, capturing the couple's ongoing conversations through pixelated video chats, social media and even Google Maps they use to show off their neighborhoods. They talk and talk, out of obligation and presumed need, but with time they have less to discuss aside from their frustrations over their disconnection. "Can we talk about something other than our relationship?" Sergi eventually moans. A cybersex session turns cold when one character lacks the passion to continue, with the scene illustrating the sheer absurdity of relying on a computer to address intimate needs. Despite these details, Marqués-Marce smartly leaves the outside lives of both his leads largely up to viewers' imaginations, turning instead to telling glimpses of their splintered exchanges to explore their romantic dysfunction.
But while technology provides the filmmaker with an illustrative guide to their dilemma, it's the actors who seal the deal. Despite the near-theatrical minimalism of its two-person dynamic, "Long Distance" is unquestionably cinematic in its use of closeups to drive the story forward. Much of the slow-burning power emerges from unspoken feelings that register on the two actors' faces, while they laugh, cry and yell at the digital representations of their counterparts staring back at them. It's an astoundingly modern rendition of heartbreak.
As the days crawl by, with intertitles frequently noting the passage of time in a chapter-based approach, there's no doubting that "Long Distance" is on a path toward a wrenching finale. But it manages to defy clichés by evading any significant melodramatic developments. Instead, it's the pileup of small moments that make all the difference: Alex's neglect to respond to a text message while Sergi waits somberly from his couch; her giddy video chat after a night of heavy drinking is contrasted with his mopey, sober condition. Because we never see these characters alone for very long, they seem to exist as a single unit sputtering along with broken parts.
That's to the detriment of the highly contained screenplay, which never gives them fully defined personalities of their own — although the vague sense of their individual identities speaks to the contemporary themes in play. Marqués-Marcet's tender approach lacks much in the way of originality to hold its premise together, but that's precisely what makes its narrative so universally involving: It's a story told countless times before that's entirely rooted in the moment.
With time, the filmmaker achieves a small miracle by stringing together the movie's concise segments into an emotional whole. After showing their chatter through various screens, Marqués-Marcet reaches for a brilliantly topical image that requires no dialogue to obtain its poignancy: From halfway around the world, the couple cradles their laptops and waltz together to the tune of The Magnetic Fields' "Nothing Matters When We're Dancing." It's a gimmick that might seem precious if it weren't so distinctly sad by virtue of its implication: Despite the connectivity of the modern age, no amount of technological advancement can replace the desire for physical companionship.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Following its slot in competition at SXSW, the film should enjoy a healthy festival life on the Latin American circuit, but may face a difficult road to a substantial U.S. release unless word of mouth and critical support is strong enough.
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