It’s been six long years since Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ narrative feature debut, the much beloved “Little Miss Sunshine.” But the directing duo is back with a new film, “Ruby Sparks,” and with it, they prove that some things are worth the wait. With a script by its 28-year-old star, Zoe Kazan, and co-starring her real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, “Ruby Sparks” is a winning, charming yet bittersweet exploration of love and relationships, those that exist in both reality and fantasy.
Calvin (Dano) is an aging wunderkind novelist, having published a lauded first book at 19, and struggling with his second at 29. He’s neurotic, has writer’s block, and absolutely no friends, save for his dog Scotty, his therapist (Elliott Gould), and his brother Harry (Chris Messina), and technically, those don’t count. Calvin dreams of a girl, backlit by the glowing sun, beckoning from his subconscious, and one morning he wakes with a start and begins to create this woman, Ruby Sparks, writing her into his reality. The more he writes, the more he falls in love with her, writing to spend time with her, his dreams and reality blending into each other. Then one morning, Ruby (Kazan) is there, eating cereal in his apartment. After recovering from his initial panic attack, and assured that others can see her too, Calvin embraces Ruby, relishing in his newfound love, his dream girl, his constant companion. He even confides in his brother Harry, proving his creation by demonstrating how he can control her with the strike of a typewriter key, though, since she’s perfect, he doesn’t really need to write anymore.
As Ruby gains autonomy, meeting his family and exploring her interests, things begin to unravel for Calvin. He fears losing her as she becomes more independent, and he itches to control her for his own gain. But along with his dream girl, Calvin has created a whole person, and with each edit, it sets into motion reactions on Ruby’s part that Calvin cannot control. If he wants Ruby to be sad without him, she clings and cries if he lets go for one second. If she’s happy, she’s maniacally joyous to the point of not needing him. He is simply unable to make her behave in the way that he wants and needs, and as he pulls the marionette’s strings, the dance he makes her perform gets more and more out of anyone’s control, building to a destructive explosion that is no one’s fault but his own.
As fantastical and magical as this story is, Dayton and Faris bring a warm realism to the material, and the screenplay rings clear as a bell for anyone who has ever suffered from an identity crisis or pressure to live up to an idealized image in a romantic relationship. The things that Ruby says to Calvin do not belie any sort of fantasy or mystical relationship between them — this is all very real. When she says, “you want me to be some Platonic ideal of a girlfriend,” it has a double meaning– Calvin has constructed her as such, but she struggles under the pressure he places on her, even as she is unaware of his hand in her existence. These are the moments where the film’s truth reveals itself, as it shows us the struggle that exists between fantasy and reality. Even though she is his fantasy, in reality, she can’t be controlled. Calvin can’t have the real and the ideal.
“Ruby Sparks” hits that sweet emotional spot much in the same way “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” does. While you are at once charmed by the whimsy and romance, there’s still a gut punch of emotional rawness just waiting to be delivered. But that’s to say that the strongest part of this fantastical romance is the reality of the truth that grounds it.
Kazan is simply a wonder in this film. It is because of the strength of her performance and willingness to lay herself bare that her character doesn’t stray into manic pixie dream girl territory– she’s much too fully realized, even as a fantasy, to be rendered that shallow of a stereotype. She brings a physicality to this role that demonstrates that she is fully present in her body while still retaining a sense of wild abandon. Not to mention the screenplay, which is absolutely aces– at once funny, endearing, and playful while still speaking resonant truths. Dano is plaintive and bewildered as Calvin, whom he plays to a T, but he is a powerful actor, letting some of that threatening side come through as the situation with Ruby darkens and escalates.
At the Q&A after the screening, Kazan said she was inspired by the myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who creates his ideal woman and falls in love with her. She has imbued this tale with her own unique perspective, in addition to some some universal themes about love, identity and relationships. Dayton and Faris have done a beautiful job of manifesting this story onscreen. The film is stylish (cinematography by Matthew Libatique) and expertly paced, never dragging, consistently foregrounding the characters and story. These two couples have made a delightful romantic comedy that tugs at the heartstrings and rings of an instant classic. “Ruby Sparks” is a gal you should definitely discover this summer. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the L.A. Film Festival.