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The Recipe to Getting Sundance to Go Ga-Ga Over Your Film

By Seth Freilich | Film | July 21, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | July 21, 2011 |

Another Earth is not a perfect movie, but it’s kind of the epitome of why so many of us love indie films, making it no wonder that it’s one of the “hot” Sundance flix this year. It ticks off the boxes for so many of our indie film requirements:

1. Has an interesting concept that blends genres. This is one of the movies where I can go one of two ways, telling you very little about the plot, or giving you a bit more. It doesn’t much matter, as it’s an enjoyable film either way, but I think it’s a better viewing experience with the smaller plot description. Feel free to whichever paragraph you think is right for you:

—Brief description. A new planet, previously obscured by the sun, is discovered to be an apparent duplicate of our own Earth. While the world deals with the ramifications of this, Rhoda Williams and John Burroughs meet in what can only be described as the antithesis of a meet-cute and begin a friendship that is mired in a tragic background only one of them knows about.

—More detiled description. A new planet, previously obscured by the sun, is discovered to be an apparent duplicate of our own Earth, complete with versions ourselves. While the world deals with the ramifications of this, Rhoda Williams and John Burroughs meet in what can only be described as the antithesis of a meet-cute, when she goes to apologize to him four years after killing his wife and children in a tragic accident. Because he was in a coma for a while, he doesn’t know her real identity and, when she chickens out and doesn’t apologize to him by lies about why she’s there to see him, they begin a tense friendship that turns into an awkward love affair.

(Welcome back.) While the film explores the possible ramifications of what’s been dubbed Earth 2, Rhoda and John begin to help each other climb out of what is a seriously low point in their lives. And it uses this sci-fi angle to take what is really a character piece about tragedy and redemption, and turn to some philosophical questions about identity and destiny. It doesn’t explore these questions in as much depth as I think it thinks it does, but it’s nice to see the film try.

2. Has an interesting back story. The movie is directed by Mike Cahill, and was written by Cahill and Brit Marling. Cahill’s background involves many years as a filed producer for the National Geographic Channel, filming sharks and turtles, among other animals. Since then, he’s done some documentary work (including a prior Sundance doc, Boxers and Ballerinas), a bunch of different art-related products, and even has a startup company that “distributes lifestyle content to the young urban Chinese.” Marling, meanwhile, graduated valedictorian from Georgetown with an economics degree (as did Cahill, which is where they presumably met, though no valedictorian for him, slacker) and gave up her life as an investment-banking analyst at Goldman Sachs to get into filmmaking, and she has two films at this year’s Sundance.

3. Showcases an underappreciated performer. John Burrough, a music composer, is played by William Mapother, who you may know as Ethan from Lost, or one of those “hey, it’s that guy” guys from a ton of things. Here, he really gets to stretch his legs a bit, playing a man heaped in a hole of depression who slowly manages to climb his way out. It’s a really lovely performance which gave me a new appreciation for Mapother.

4. Showcases a hot up-and-coming writer, director and/or performer. Another Earth hits all three of these. Cahill and Marling have crafted an interesting script which may not achieve everything it sets out for, as mentioned above, but it certainly does enough to make me want to see more. And Cahill, as a director, has offered a great first film. Other movies at this year’s Sundance have tried to get “artsy” with some type of voiceover on top of artsy visuals (*ahem* fuck you, HERE), have tried to use different camera angles (Vampire, which I’ll be reviewing in the next few days, made a mess of this), or have had deliberately slow pacing (again, fuck you HERE) just because. But Another Earth has these all done well, and they serve the story that Cahill is telling. While the pacing is deliberately slow, the movie still flies, a testament to both the writing and direction.

Finally, Brit Marling also stars in the film as Rhoda Williams, and she’s excellent. Though we barely know Rhoda before tragedy crushes her, Marling is able to portray just how much Rhoda has lost, and has the viewer instantly empathizing with her. She also deftly plays Rhoda’s slow salvation and redemption with Mapother, and is just very compelling to watch.

5. Is endearingly low-budget without looking cheap. This plays in Cahill’s direction, more than anything else. The shots are all deceptively simply, without a lot of fancy set pieces or special effects (aside from the visuals of Earth 2, there are really no special effects at all). Cahill has said that he specifically “wanted to create a unique low-fi look … as if watching a documentary or a beautiful home video,” and he achieves this goal, which gives the film a naturalistic feel that contrasts with the whole, you know, second Earth up there in the sky.

6. Either has a lot of Arcade Fire or a low-fi soundtrack. No Arcade Fire here, but most the soundtrack consists of lovely minimalist pieces by Adam M. Small.

7. It’s not a perfect film. As I’ve said, Another Earth is not a perfect film. It’s definitely a smart film, but not quite as smart as it thinks it is. The concept definitely offers the potential for a really fascinating exploration of some deep questions, but the film just doesn’t get into them in the kind of detail I’d like. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a scifi nerd and except more, but still — if folks say this is the next Moon, it’s not. It’s got its heart in the right place, it just doesn’t quite get there. Also, there’s was a point in the development of Rhoda and John’s relationship when the film lost some of the audience, and a few people even left. I didn’t really like that turn, either, but was willing to go with it because there was so much about the film I was enjoying. And while some of the artsy/allegory stuff worked well — particularly Marling’s telling of a story about a Russian cosmonaut — at least one instance (John’s mini-rant about Plato’s Cave) felt a bit heavy-handed.

But, all told, Another Earth is exactly the kind of movie I hope to see at a film festival or when strolling into my local indie theater, and it’s easily one of the best of this year’s Sundance crop.

Another Earth premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It opens in limited release today.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.