Love the One You’re With: McDowell’s Exceptional Debut is Remarkable Lo-fi Sci-fi
Almost impossible to discuss without tarnishing the highly nuanced and inventive twists it uses to ponder age old relationship issue situations, Charlie McDowell’s directorial debut, The One I Love is one of those films best to experience completely blindsided. But for those that need a bit of convincing as to its considerable merits as one of the most enjoyable independent films you’re likely to see this summer, by all means, do what you need to do. For anyone that’s ever been in a long term relationship, or witnessed one fall apart (for argument’s sake, let’s say that sexual orientation isn’t a major factor here), the troubled husband and wife that dominate every minute of this film, played superbly by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss, will seem instantly familiar. But, much like another indie romance with sci-fi elements starring Duplass, Safety Not Guaranteed, both exceptional writing and superb performances elevate this film into an irregular realm of its own.
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are a long married couple whose relationship is on the brink of collapse. A somewhat bemused therapist (Ted Danson) creates a variety of exercises, the results of which seem to point toward the irreparable damage caused by Ethan’s infidelity—they’re just too out of sync. As a sort of last resort move, their therapist insists that they take a trip to an isolated cabin where he sends all his troubled couples. They’re told that everyone comes back refreshed, with a new, positive outlook on their relationship. Dubiously, Sophie and Ethan take his advice. A quietly magical first evening finds the couple experiencing each other in much needed state of candidness…..yet, something strange happens in the nearby guest house…something so inexplicable that Ethan and Sophie are tantalized into investigating.
To offer similar cinematic points of comparison might even give too much to way, but let’s just say that The One I Love feels like an odd mixture of The Enchanted Cottage (1945) and a popular sci-fi text that’s been remade several times by Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman, Abel Ferrara and Oliver Hirschbiegel. Oh, and maybe, just maybe a titch of The Stepford Wives in there, too. Beyond the intriguing twist that’s best left undisclosed before experiencing the film, what McDowell does beyond that is to use it as a template to explore communication issues between couples, whose situation feels like a metaphor for sexual experimentation (or, even, a similar discourse of what goes into creating an open relationship).
The more we get to know someone, the more the passage of time seems to build impenetrable walls, it seems, and there’s much to be broken down between the very hurt Sophie and Ethan’s proud coldness, crippled by his inability to fully acknowledge how his actions have brought them to the current precipice. Duplass, and especially Moss, are excitingly, thrillingly wonderful in their performances. Even as the film tends to divorce itself from its initial explorations of a marriage on the rocks for less esoteric waters, and ends on a note that it’s safe to say is predictable, considering the circumstances, this is exciting, innovative filmmaking that expertly utilizes creative ideas and not at the expense of organic character development. It’s a wonderful, hidden gem of a film that many will stumble onto this summer as an unexpected treat.