High school and college graduation mark two easily marked points of conflict, as both compress four years into a definitive decision along the lines of “what happens next?” Director Hannah Fidell works around these signposts, spotting subtler shifts as springboards from which to catch a character’s subjective desires and anxieties, but not necessarily the facts. 2013’s “A Teacher” saw the director obscure the taboo subject matter of a student-teacher affair via a murkier and elusive approach, and with her latest “6 Years,” she cuts the script loose for a look at a long-term relationship under duress.
In this case, the relationship is between Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story“) and Ben Rosenfield (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Mel and Dan, students at UT Austin. The pair are wonderfully adept at the range of Fidell’s improvised aims (the script was actually a 40-page outline); they are glimpsed initially in a sun-bleached montage of sex, swimming and happier times, but it’s soon cut short by an argument following a party that turns violent once it’s revealed that Mel drove home drunk.
These strains keep appearing: Interning at a record label with an attractive co-worker (Lindsay Burdge, “A Teacher”) —who draws him toward an opportunity in New York and more importantly to her— Ben takes Mel’s emotional availability as evidence of overdependence on him. Meanwhile, Mel is caught in a whirlwind of confusion, trying to both keep Dan and herself happy without indulging his perceived annoyances.
It’s a ripe dynamic to tackle with such young characters, and Farmiga especially is astonishing in the way she comprehends that realization. Aided by striking eyes that rival her sister Vera’s, she weathers the challenging notes of Fidell’s story with confidence, such as in a frank conversation with Dan about their sex life after she’s caught watching porn.
Just as notable is the gorgeous, understated cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo (who is presently at SXSW with his own narrative directorial debut “One & Two” —read our review), which adds an expert technical polish and interesting sense of geography. He often starts out wide and slowly frames into a tight closeup as the scene progresses. Usually it’s with both Mel and Dan in shot; the takeaway image from the film is of both searching the other’s face for a reaction.
As witnessed by her bracing use of Colin Stetson to set the opening tone of “A Teacher,” Fidell is tied to music as texture, and “6 Years” is no different. Here she establishes the twentysomething, college-age atmosphere with the indie-rock artists: Jacuzzi Boys, Dirty Projectors, Foxygen and Cass McCombs all make central appearances. When the fun dies down, she uses the score by Julian Wass to bolster the moments of dramatic heft.
The unscripted nature of the film adds intimacy to moments of drama between Mel and Dan, but it also provides less confident footing in their outside interactions. Scenes at Dan’s record label company that include Burdge and Joshua Leonard are listless, mostly consisting of drinking and talk about the coolest bands and plans about where to drink next, while conversations with Dan and his mother about his future unfortunately boil down to stilted “live your dream” variations. There’s also problems in the more heightened narrative turns in the film —a night in jail for one of the characters occurs rather conveniently, and screaming matches between Mel and Dan are repetitious.
But there is enough in “6 Years” from Farmiga and Rosenfield’s performances to warrant a watch, and Fidell’s ideas and subtle developments around such a challenging story are heartfelt and mostly well-rendered. As with “A Teacher,” there is melodrama knocking at the door for her to answer, and when she does, it’s to a shaky response that strains reality a step too far in the universe she’s created. [B-]