What was it that Herman Melville once wrote? “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.” A nice little nugget of advice that transcends literature and easily applies to all arts. In the case of Andrew Droz Palermo’s “One & Two,” things are even more sour, because not only does his film cross the barriers of homage to dabble in straight-up imitation, but it’s not exactly succeeding at it, either. After “The Tree of Life,” the inimitable Terrence Malick had unwittingly unleashed an army of copycats; directors who have a good eye for pretty shots, but are not nearly as victorious in connecting all the other necessary elements to create a compelling piece of work. At one point, it becomes tough to watch them try, which brings us to Palermo’s hollow story of two supernaturally gifted siblings.
And it starts with such promise. We see a seabed-view of a lake’s translucent surface, daylight enticingly shimmering through until two young diving bodies disrupt the tranquility. The somber and affecting chords on the soundtrack accompany radiant shots of reflected magic hour sky, as a boy (Timothée Chalamet) and a girl (Kiernan Shipka, Sally from “Mad Men”) sit in silence on an idyllic mount. This is followed by a gorgeous wide shot of vast countryside, the light waning in the distance, the siblings like two tiny specks clad in white, and the score growing with harmonious melancholy to make way for the film’s title. It’s a tremendously effective opening, and the two key components that make it work are the film’s only saviors throughout. As far as I’m concerned, the only “One & Two” combination with real punch here are Autumn Cheyenne Durald’s cinematography and Nathan Halpern’s score. Story-wise, unfortunately, it’s downhill after the title sequence.
Eva and Zac live with their ailing mom Elizabeth (Elizabeth Reaser) and stern father Daniel (Grant Bowler) on some kind of farm, secluded from society. Think M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village,” but with four people instead of an entire community. What makes this family different, and why an entire wall was built to fence them inside, is the children’s supernatural gift. They are teleporters (like Nightcrawler from “X-Men”), and are still trying to understand what good can come of this inherent gift they never asked for. In the meantime, they are using it to sneak off into the night together, go swimming in the lake, and zap around the fields. Their mother, who loves them unreservedly, has a mysterious condition of nightly spasms that choke her up (in ways not unlike demonic possession), and a connection to the children’s’ supernatural abilities is implied. Their father, who makes the implication, is a God fearing man and doesn’t understand why his children had to be born that way. When Elizabeth’s spasms get more intense, the dynamics of the house begin to shift, and “One & Two” becomes a story of domestic abuse.
What completely unravels Palermo’s film after its promising beginnings, is the meatless screenplay (co-written by Palermo and Neima Shahdadi), proving yet again how good-looking images, and a score full of gravitas, are not enough to make a film succeed. The cracks begin to show when Palermo introduces whispery voiceover. An infamously tricky element when it comes to screenwriting, the V.O. works with Malick because it’s inquisitive, poetic, and humbly philosophical. Here, too concerned with plot and written matter-of-factly, it becomes a gimmick, which drags the entire picture down. “They together might be something against your desire, something worse,” murmurs Daniel, speaking to God. This is meant to be the answer to some important questions Daniel is asked throughout the film, like when he nails his children to their respective bedroom walls by their clothes and Elizabeth asks him, “what are you trying to teach them?” He doesn’t answer, and we’re supposed to rely on his voiceover moment, which in itself is just a hackneyed excuse more than a comprehensible reason. Daniel, so key in making this story work, is a frustratingly unbelievable character. Worse still is that he’s just one of four, as the entire family unit feels underdeveloped by the end.
The silent scenes, which hold so much power in the first act, feel emptier and emptier, the closer the conclusion nears. Moments where Halpern’s score felt like it was adding to what was on screen, turn to moments where it’s compensating for the lack of interest. Palermo is a visual storyteller (he co-directed the great documentary “Rich Hill,” and is a cinematographer himself), but “One & Two” shows that he’s still got a way to go with narrative features, because it’s precisely the narrative that fails to engage. It doesn’t help that the acting is decent at best; the four principle players going through their motions in rudimentary ways, only dissuading patience further. Introducing the supernatural to the natural can be done skillfully (“Chronicle” is a great recent example), but if you’re too concerned with tracing a cinematic style, everything about the story begins to feel unnatural, and you lose your audience. Palermo’s gift is fenced in just like Eva and Zac are in the film, and he’s too busy imitating to even attempt original failure. [C]