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Maybe this is the Twilight Zone, where mundane beginnings lead to extraordinary situations. In The One I Love, a married couple played by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are having problems. Nothing outlandish, just garden-variety issues such as resentment, boredom, and an erosion of respect. So: off to couples therapy. Their analyst advocates a retreat which, he promises, has worked wonders for many others.

What happens next is… well, something people associated with the film have tried to keep quiet. Frankly, that’s a bit absurd, as the material in question is the premise of the film, not a spoiler. Trailers will eventually give some of it up. But I’ll play along, because doing so is a fun exercise.

To be circumspect: This isn’t a romantic comedy, nor a weepy drama. Unusual, clever, and bitterly funny, The One I Love seeks to expose the impulses that can stall a relationship, or foster growth. While the idea’s deepest potential is not exploited, Duplass and Moss — very nearly the only actors in the movie — perform with nicely-pitched intensity and utter command of their craft. If this had premiered earlier in the Sundance schedule it might have become the must-see film of the fest; the late debut doesn’t change the fact that it is among this year’s early standouts. 

As the couple explores the grounds of the country retreat, each experiences things that seem unrealistic, if not downright insane. Oddities are first written off as the product of wine and weed-fueled imaginations. They’re soon enmeshed in a situation that exposes many of the hurdles in their path, but which also complicate the relationship in very unexpected ways.

Writer Justin Lader seems more fascinated with the mechanics of his plot device than in digging deep into questions of desire, compromise, and jealousy. One must accept a fairly outlandish explanation buried within the film’s little mystery box, and one or two associated hanging plot threads. But the mechanisms of the story, and the concept behind them, do act as gears in a clockwork metaphor that illuminates what each person really prizes, and how well they know their own desires. In that respect, Lader has come up with something good.

Once the setup was in motion, I hoped to see the film metaphorically cracking open the characters’ heads like pumpkins in order to dredge up great handfuls of psychic goo. Instead, the conflict develops as a shadowy farce that favors half-truths told for comic effect and the simple development of the strange premise rather than serious soul-searching. Fortunately, the comedy works and the whole construct is consistently entertaining, even if this is a somewhat flimsy therapy session. (It’s easy to imagine an early ’70s version from Woody Allen, with under-cranked characters scampering about leaving shattered remnants of the fourth wall in their wake.)

A tendency to stay in the shallow end of the emotional pool isn’t a terrible detriment, however, because Moss and Duplass unleash impressive technical skill, conveying volumes in any single look. Explaining precisely how they’re so effective would be revealing; you’ll have to trust that thirty minutes after the title card you’ll see it all in action.

The One I Love seems tailor-made for the modern Sundance audience as it fuses three or four common festival genres in a compact, unforgettable story. The exercise never feels cynical because the script is keeps the character predicaments firmly in focus, even when hewing towards genre technicalities. Debut director Charlie McDowell ingeniously navigates the film’s trickier technical aspects without losing sight of the emotional core. A stinging final shot ensures that the film’s questions will haunt viewers after the credits roll.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

[RADiUS-TWC picked up the film towards the end of Sundance, and plans a 4th quarter 2014 release. With any luck, that might result in a slightly less generic title; while The One I Love is appropriate, it is also so cautiously non-specific.]

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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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