Lots of times I like the idea of a movie better than the movie, or get frustrated with a director that doesn’t tell the story the way I want it to be told. Let’s face it, I’m an entitled viewer. After years programming film festivals and now covering indie film for AMFM, as well as making my own films, it’s hard to get out of my own head. That’s just a short intro to acknowledge that I often judge films against what they could have been, rather than how effectively the filmmakers accomplish what they set out to do.
And that’s my central issue with ONE & TWO, the new SciFi/Supernatural drama from Andrew Droz Palermo starring Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka. In an isolated ‘The Village’-like existence, a brother and sister develop the power to teleport short distances. Their exploration of their abilities upsets the carefully structured and protected life on the farmhouse, and their parents desperately try to maintain the family’s quarantine from the outside world. When Eva (Shipka) gets beyond the giant wall she discovers the modern world, a world her parents never wanted her to see.
ONE & TWO is beautifully shot, every screen-picture is perfectly composed and the director allows it to wash over us, with a tender pace that really places us in the world. Although the setting is contained for the most part, this only increases the effectiveness of things like the massive wall that surrounds their property, something that clearly could not have been built by the parents. When Eva reaches the outside, the camera embraces the grit and darkness to contrast the more ‘utopian’ isolation of the farmhouse. The performances are extremely strong, especially Shipka, who let’s her mischievous Sally Draper come out in a new and exciting way, and Elizabeth Reaser (Elizabeth, her mother) who has to tip-toe the line of what she can and can’t tell her children. But the key to the film is the charming teens discovering themselves motif that adds superhero-like powers to the mix. I had a chance to speak with writer/director Palermo and actress Reaser at SXSW about their beguiling film.
“It was something that I thought allowed us in to talk about the familial issues in a way that was interesting,” says Palermo about Evan and her brother Zac’s teleportation abilities, “to me it was more metaphorical than it is real.” There is a bit of backstory at the opening of the film, that more people had lived in this community at one time, but then as these powers started to develop, they left. Children died, went missing. Part of the mystery is that only the children have it, so it is not inherited by their parents.
“For me what the powers represent is something more metaphorical about the children’s bond,” the director says, “they have this thing and through that bond this power arose. It is sort of the manifestation of that bond.” It is never explained where the power came from, or why the parents don’t have it, the powers work on many levels. “There are limitations in our minds that maybe there aren’t in the children’s minds,” says Reaser, “and their need to go from one place to the other, to go somewhere else.”
On the most basic level, Zac and Eva’s powers capture the freedom of youth, something that has been appropriated from them here behind the twenty-foot wall that encircles the farmhouse and its empty community. “They also use it just to have fun and be children in way that perhaps they are not allowed,” continues Palermo, “their days would be filled with manual labor, living four people in isolation would be logistically quite hard, it would require morning to night work just to sustain themselves … the kids use this ability to retain some sense of adolescence.”
It’s also a delicate balance between the fully developed rules that govern the powers and the community, and what to reveal to the audience (and what the parents reveal to the children) and even what the director reveals to the actors. “I think Andrew didn’t spell it all out for us,” says Reaser, “a lot of that you have to do on your own as an actor.” For Palermo, it was important to understand the powers and what they might be, to answer questions from actors, and especially production design. “I wanted to be able to answer those questions, tell them what I thought,” the director says, “it was always open to interpretation for me, and I was willing to bend some of the things.” But even so, the details of that were never intended to be very accessible to the audience. “It’s definitely left on the outside of the film,” he says, “the films I like you’re just sort of dropped into… the movie’s already happening, the character’s happening. I want it to feel alive. So filling all that out was extremely boring to me.”
For me, this would be fine, no one enjoys a story bogged down in exposition (ever try sitting through the first 10 minutes of Pacific Rim?). My biggest issue with ONE & TWO is that it ends at what really feels like the midpoint of the story to me. The film feels more like a really good television pilot than a complete story, the world is set up, the characters are put into conflict, and there is just an inkling of how their lives might change… and then it ends.
I brought this up to Palermo, who said there were many people at the film’s world premiere in Berlin who wanted to know what was next for the characters. “It feels right to end it where it does to me,” he explains, “I don’t know that it could have gone on any further, in the context of this film.” He is open to the idea of continuing the story in a sequel, although he feels like a prequel might be more interesting. “It’s such a small intimate film,” Palermo says of ONE & TWO, “that when you open it up, it has so many possibilities, I think that a lot of what I like in this film would have to be very different in the next film.”
Ultimately, ONE & TWO is not an effective SciFi film because it does not pay off the premise. As an indie drama, a pseudo-period one even, it is full of great characters, in rich conflict, but again, it only feels two-thirds realized. Just as the world is really coming together, the film ends. If the world weren’t so evocative, maybe I wouldn’t mind, but it seems such a waste to set up such a lush foundation and not let the audience fully enjoy it. The story the film tells is too small for the world created, too slight. That being said, the film is certainly worth checking out, for Shipka’s performance alone, as it is such a joy to see an actress we’ve watched grow up literally before our eyes inhabit a new life and new circumstance.
ONE & TWO world premiered at Berlin before making its US Premiere at SXSW. Upcoming screenings have yet to be announced, but you can follow them on their facebook page.