One of the drawbacks of attempting to watch a movie a day is, if you’re a horrible planner, you’ll spend a lot of wasted time wondering which movie you’ll want to see on that given day. Close to an hour of Netflix browsing led me to Between Us, which I initially viewed as an insightful, if not innocuous romantic comedy toplined by Ben Feldman and Olivia Thirlby. My expectations for the film were low, and thank goodness the don’t judge a book by its cover take applied to this first rate narrative. Review below!!
Henry (Ben Feldman) and Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) are six years into their relationship, and the only bond they seem to have with one another is their Los Feliz apartment. Dianne’s well to do parents (a welcome sighting from both Peter Bogdanovich and Lesley Ann Warren) urges the couple to move out of their neighborhood and purchase a fancier apartment in another section of Los Angeles, but Henry craves Los Feliz’s bohemian environs and desperately clings to his ideals of artistic and social freedom.
Dianne who, unlike Henry, has a 9 to 5 job that pays the bills, attempts to placate her lover’s rants about the suffocating grip of suburbia by agreeing to his takes. But Dianne is just gently humoring him, and both understand their conversations about moving in or out of their apartment hold a much deeper meaning.
Their sexual passion has been extinguished thanks to time and weather (or maybe it’s that literal cloud that hangs over their domicile – but more on that later), and both believe they need a bit of breathing room from each other. For Henry, his temporary refuge is found in a music artist (Analeigh Tipton) who’s actually seen his obscure shorts (Henry’s a struggling filmmaker). Adam Goldberg is the performance artist/actor who enters Dianne’s life at a critical juncture, and it’s understandable that Thirlby’s chemistry with Goldberg is more palpable than her moments with Feldman (the pair, after all, play lovers caught in a rotting relationship).
The idea of rejuvenating a partnership, whether it’s through the hard lessons of adultery or simply time to explore different avenues, is nothing new. But they say there are only 7 basic plots in storytelling, and writer/director Rafael Palacio Illingworth brings a fresh take to the proceedings.
Both Dianne and Henry are well developed characters, and although Henry’s unoriginal takes on struggling for your art is initially wearying, he ends up being a much more self-actualized being towards the final act. Dianne, with her level headed take on settling down and making enough money for the finer things in life (she’s also the type of person whose 401K plan is in tiptop shape), seems like the person who’s absolutely carrying the relationship. Of course, looks can be deceiving.
Illingworth, who superimposes a storm cloud in the apartment, injects his share of artistic flourishes in his story, and while the cloud is a nice touch to get viewers attempting to interpret its thematic significance, the filmmaker’s main strengths lies in his extensive use mise-en-scene. Whether it’s disrupting how we view a love scene within a frame or a wonderful long take during an illuminating moment of Henry’s journey, Illingworth throws in his share of memorable, cinematic moments but thankfully these compositions actually feel organic to the storyline. The voiceovers, shared separately by the two leads refreshingly add an extra dimension to the storytelling.
It’s wonderful to have universal storylines, as it’s a great catch-all for moviegoers. That being said, Between Us is a really specific story on what it means to live and love in Los Angeles. Writers such as John Fante and Charles Bukowski have explored the sheer joy and utter desperation of living in the City of Angels, and that aspect is also subtly captured in Between Us. Some viewers may be surprised when Dianne’s parents offer up several hundred thousand dollars for the down payment of a Los Angeles apartment, but truth be told that figure is an entirely realistic price to pay in many sections of the city.
Henry’s struggles at making a film while staying true to one’s ideals, as well as Tipton and Goldberg’s own takes on their artistry, effectively captures the sheer frustration and listlessness of many an Angeleno looking for that big break.
Credit also goes to Illingworth for having Feldman (Mad Men, Superstore) and Thirlby (5 to 7, Juno), both charming and scene stealers in previous work, absolutely tone down the charisma with Between Us. He could have turned his film into a biting yet ultimately affable romantic comedy especially given his lead stars’ talents, but thankfully Between Us takes its storytelling cues from such auteurs as John Cassavetes and Alan Rudolph.
During one of the film’s more pivotal sequences, Dianne and Henry s chant “Husband and Wife” as they dance around their apartment. What begins as a comedic moment extends to, at least depending upon your interpretation, much darker and confusing territory. It’s a seemingly funny exchange that suggests that these two exasperated lovers may be bonded – if only for a moment. But like much of Between Us suggests, there’s a lot more to explore beneath the surface.
Rating: Four (****) out of Five (*****) Stars
*****Between Us is my movie pick of the week, as it’s actually the one film from my third week of my “A Movie A Day” experience that I can’t stop thinking about. You can catch the film via streaming on Netflix.
****If you’re A Fine Frenzy or Transparent fan, Alison Sudol makes a cameo during Dianne’s nighttime excursion into the Los Angeles art scene. Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder also appears as the guy who introduces Henry’s film to a mainly indifferent audience.
****As cited before, Thirlby is great in 5 to 7, and if you love wistful and well written romantic dramas (Anton Yelchin and Berenice Marlohe are excellent as the leads). Last but not least, Feldman has a brief role in the crime drama Thumper, which I discussed (and recommended) on last week’s “A Movie A Day” column.
ICYMI this month’s CinemAddicts episode, check it out below: