In Shakespeare’s great tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the two doomed young lovers of the title – torn between loyalty to family and loyalty to love – frequently speak in metaphors of light and dark to describe what the other represents to them. Juliet characterizes Romeo as “Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back”, while Romeo, as he comes upon Juliet’s seemingly-dead body in the final act, proclaims that “her beauty makes/This vault a feasting presence full of light.” These are beautiful sentiments, to be sure, although also somewhat ironic considering that the two proved to be the source of one another’s eventual downfall.
I open with this particular bit of trivia not to suggest that Apart – a new film from freshman writer/director Aaron Rottinghaus that recently debuted at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival – in any way approaches the heights of arguably the greatest ever playwright’s body of work, but rather because it serves as an appropriate jumping-off point in highlighting a remarkable scene near the middle of the film in which Emily (Olesya Rulin) and Noah (Josh Danziger), the two hapless, unrequited lovers at the center of the story, engage in a slow dance in a school hallway set to the gentle strains of a soft-focus indie love song. As the teenage couple circles around and around in a brief moment of heartbreaking intimacy, they appear as two dark, angular silhouettes against a brightly-lit backdrop – smitten would-be paramours inextricably linked, and yet horribly doomed if they remain together.
The mood-drenched scene, as shot by Rottinghaus’ excellent cinematographer J.P. Lipa, could certainly be read as the visual equivalent of the warm, sightless cocoon so often spun by two individuals immersed in the throes of romantic love, but if you look deeper it can also be interpreted as a more objective view of the central characters’ star-crossed coupling. For while Emily and Noah, like their Shakespearean forebears, might very well see each other in that moment as objects of the purest light, by keeping them cloaked in a blanket of shadows Rottinghaus is perhaps suggesting the deadly impossibility of their complex and altogether unnavigable relationship. As a mise-en-scene metaphor for the concept of bedeviled romance (intentional or not) it’s pretty potent stuff (and apparently the filmmakers agree, as they used a still from the scene as the central image on the movie’s festival-run poster). Unfortunately, however, Apart on the whole isn’t able to live up to the isolated promise of that sincerely wrought thematic centerpiece.
While the film, somewhat in the style of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, incorporates a hodgepodge of cinematic genres into the mix – horror, drama, thriller, fantasy, science-fiction – it’s the central love story that serves as the main crux of the plot. We open with a scene of young Noah boarding a school bus and settling in next to classmate Emily, a girl who holds in her eyes the glimmer of a strange, otherworldly acuity. “Do you see it, too?” she asks Noah as she grasps his hand in hers. In that brief moment of physical contact we get the sense that he does, and soon enough a wayward truck pummels into the bus, resulting in a horrifying explosion of shattered glass and pre-pubescent screams.
This arresting opening scene serves as a brief, elegantly-shot prequel to the events that unfold several years later, as we establish the two children now as teenaged best friends who have maintained a strong connection in the years following the accident. Emily has grown into a petite, luminous and seemingly popular cheerleader, while Noah is now a sullen, tousle-haired young man who holds an obvious romantic affection for his female friend – apparent from his barely-concealed jealousy as he finds out that Emily has been asked to the senior prom by a member of the high school football team.
Of course, we wouldn’t be covering the film on this site if there wasn’t also the issue of the two friends’ seemingly shared clairvoyant abilities, which unfailingly herald the arrival of some horrific future event. Near the beginning of the film, Emily watches in horror as a crimson red stain spreads across the clean white surface of another cheerleader’s uniform. The night of the prom, Noah sees a trickle of blood leaking from the head of Emily’s prom date while the couple poses for photos. Tellingly, the visions only occur when Noah and Emily find themselves in close proximity to each other.
Not to belabor the comparison, but Apart bears many similarities to Donnie Darko – a movie that rightfully stands tall as a stunning modern example of mind-fuck filmmaking done right – that warrant mentioning. For starters, both films take place in idyllic suburban settings and feature persistent doses of magical realism to create an almost mythical sense of foreboding. And like the former film’s title character, Noah and Emily both struggle with an affliction that causes them to suffer from strange, seemingly prophetic nightmare hallucinations. Emily is even seeing a psychiatrist (Joey Lauren Adams, a sadly underrated actress who only appears in a couple of brief scenes here), who has prescribed a medication meant to allay the symptoms of her apparent “psychological disorder”. Sound familiar?
The parallels between the two films don’t end on paper. Like Kelly, Rottinghaus has a knack for creating disarmingly poetic visual imagery that holds an almost hypnotic pull on the viewer, drawing us in with stylistic flourishes that positively drip with a sense of profound mystery. The difference here is that, unlike Darko, in the end Rottinghaus’ story doesn’t prove affecting enough to hold the weight of all the visual pomp and circumstance. While Darko ultimately provided no easy answers to the dazzling cinematic puzzle it presented us with, Kelly managed to end the film on a note of poignant emotional release. It was the effective combination of both its human and philosophical underpinnings which gave the film a power and transcendence that succeeded in justifying its grandiose ambitions. Rottinghaus unfortunately isn’t able to manage the same feat.
To be fair, Apart is far from a note-by-note rip-off of Kelly’s film. For one, Rottinghaus’ narrative follows a far less linear structure than Darko’s. Whereas the latter film more or less presented its events in the scope of a traditional “A to Z” paradigm (at least until the final act), Apart messes with the chronology quite frequently throughout its hour-and-50-minute running time, bouncing back and forth between the friends’ high school days and their later, tortured young adult lives. In the latter time frame we find Noah mysteriously living in another town and suffering from a bout of acute amnesia – the result of an unnamed trauma that occurred during his senior year and caused him to lapse into a two year coma.
Adding to the distress of his attempts to recover the memories of his past life is the fact that everyone around him, including his therapist (veteran actor Bruce McGill) and older brother Oliver (Jason Davis), seem intent on concealing the nature of not only the past event that led to his memory loss but also the very existence of Emily herself. However, Noah’s later discovery of a secret storage space filled with strategically-hidden mementos from his high school years – most of which just so happen to revolve around Emily – triggers an emotional recall that sets him on a quest to travel to his hometown and uncover the mystery of his past life.
When he finally succeeds in tracking down his old best friend, Noah finds her as a withdrawn and emotionally-damaged young woman with a tendency to drown her dysfunction in casual sexual liaisons with an assortment of local men. Though she is initially reluctant to have any contact with him, Noah quickly breaks down her better judgment, and once in each other’s presence his past begins railroading back in a series of grim and violent hallucinations.
Leads Danziger and Rulin capably if unremarkably carry the film almost entirely on their shoulders, and to their credit the two performers demonstrate a real chemistry on screen that makes you believe in their almost empyreal romantic connection. Rulin, with her round, open face and wide blue eyes, is a pretty if refreshingly unconventional-looking young performer who at certain moments in the film reminded me quite a bit of the late, great actress Adrienne Shelly. Unfortunately, while the High School Musical veteran does a more than adequate job in the early going, when it comes to her most emotionally intense scenes she’s lamentably not quite up to the task. Danziger, whose character is written as essentially a less-weird version of Donnie Darko, mopes around just fine but ultimately ends up feeling a little dull and one-dimensional. The supporting cast, made up of reliable players like Adams, McGill, and horror regular Michael Bowen (as Teddy Berg, a mysterious, trucker cap-wearing man from Noah’s hometown), are dependably solid.
As for the plot, if it all sounds a bit elaborate and perplexing that’s because it is; when the mysteries of the film are finally revealed to us they prove tough to comprehend on first viewing. Rottinghaus, who conceived the story with leading man Danziger, based the film on a rare psychiatric phenomenon known as “folie a deux” (literally translated in English as “a madness shared by two”), in which the symptoms of a delusion are somehow transmitted from one person to another, usually as the result of a shared isolation and/or strong sense of co-dependency. And while it’s certainly an intriguing premise to use as the jumping-off point for a feature film, ultimately the plot is far too convoluted for its own good. Are Noah and Emily simply mad, or are they suffering from bona fide psychic visions? And how exactly did the bus accident trigger their shared affliction? By the final scene I was left with many, many unanswered questions that, unlike those in Darko, unfortunately resulted from a story that, try as it might, carried no real lasting emotional heft.
The thing of it is, a director can be as narratively audacious as he or she wants, but at the end of the day the film still needs to be underpinned by some sort of visceral or cathartic pay-off for its audience. In that sense, Apart stands as a classic case of a film that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. For all of Rottinghaus’ visual dexterity, by the (hugely anti-climactic) final scene I couldn’t help but feel the sting of an empty promise, from a filmmaker admirably grasping for a Shakespearean level of profundity and sadly coming up short.