Writer-director Hannah Fidell’s 2013 debut “A Teacher” captured the intimacy of a forbidden romance — between a high school instructor and one of her students — with an impressive degree of precision. The movie pared down the premise to its bare essence. Her follow-up, “6 Years,” similarly provides a basic snapshot of a troubled relationship, albeit a far more conventional one: The movie follows a young couple facing the titular anniversary as their future prospects are challenged by various spats and infidelities. To this end, “6 Years” offers little in the way of new material. Yet Fidell, working with executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass, effectively broadens her range by borrowing the sibling directors’ improvisatory style and ceding control to her two leads, whose heartbreaking performances imbue this familiar Austin-set narrative with a fiery edge.
A lively introductory montage chronicles happier times in lives of Mel (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story: Coven”) and Dan (Ben Rosenfield, “Boardwalk Empire”), starting a closeup of the pair experiencing coital bliss. It doesn’t take long to pierce that bubble of bliss in an ensuing scene, when a drunken Mel arrives at Dan’s apartment and faces his ire when he learns she drove home drunk. In the ensuing argument, Mel pushes Dan, and the pair wind up in the emergency room. The burst of physical violence marks the first of several stormy showdowns between the pair, as they continually attempt to reconcile their differences despite an inevitable reassessment of their future on the horizon.
The viewer has the luxury of watching the pieces crumble one by one. While Dan enjoys successful career progress at a a chic record label run by the nurturing Mark (Joshua Leonard), Mel keeps her focus on academic work. Socially, however, they’re far less coordinated: Dan struggles to shake off the advances of seductive coworker Amanda (“A Teacher” star Lindsay Burge) while Mel routinely loses her cool with him. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises to these developments, and to some degree both characters’ motivations feel somewhat half-baked, but “6 Years” nevertheless derives a level of visceral engagement from its actors’ investment in the material.
The story’s fairly routine set of events come to a standstill with each of Mel’s outbursts, and two scenes in particular stand out — a bar-set confrontation that culminates with police intervention and a tender, ambiguous exchange in the movie’s disquieting final minutes. These engrossing moments largely compensate for the standard exposition surrounding them.
The performances are matched by superb craftsmanship. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (co-director of the Sundance-winning documentary “Rich Hill”) moves freely around the characters while foregrounding subtle shifts in their expressions that say far more than any words can achieve. Farmiga’s petite build strikes a marked contrast to the lanky Rosenfield, and the difference in their physicality extends to their personalities as well. She’s regularly battling to get through to the distant, introverted Rosenfield, only to feel regret for her actions moments later; meanwhile, he looms above her, head in the clouds.
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Fidell coaches serviceable dialogue out of the actors as they argue through their problems without ever considering a real solution. “You can’t just decide to do things,” Mel tells Dan in one of several frustrating exchanges. Still, “6 Years” falls short of developing a substantial arc out of its rudimentary storyline, the result being a circular narrative that suffers from a redundant quality after its initial 20 minutes or so. That itself reflects the weak foundation of this beleaguered romance, but it’s not quite enough to carry a feature-length film. However, if “6 Years” is mainly designed to convey the hardships of a relationship past its expiration date, it certainly hits that mark several devastating times over.
“6 Years” premiered this weekend at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.