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The flipped opening images of palm trees against an indigo night sky signal from the start that the Hollywood canvas of Aaron Katz’s compelling mystery, Gemini, will be a disorienting jungle, not a La La Land of glittering dreams. The architecture and geography of Los Angeles are intriguing characters in this densely atmospheric neo-noir, which channels a seductive female gaze to consider questions of identity, celebrity and intimate relationships. While the payoff could have used some extra punch, the teasing path that leads there is bewitching, with Lola Kirke serving as an enigmatic guide.
Continuing something of a mini-trend started by Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, Gemini explores the ambiguities of the dynamic between female star and assistant, in this case blurring the lines separating professional service from co-dependent friendship, duty from devotion. As such, it represents a moody fusion of genre strands with a probing study of women’s relationships, which should help draw a female audience to streaming platforms and perhaps some limited theatrical play.
Giving off a sleepy-eyed but smart vibe that recalls Chloe Sevigny at her best, Kirke plays Jill, whose skills with organization, mediation, damage control and conflict resolution are being put to the test by the impulsive behavior of her boss, Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz), a Hollywood starlet seeking a spell from the exhausting spotlight and the all-seeing eye of social media.
As the movie opens, Heather has bailed on boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), another celebrity tabloid fixture, in whose swanky Moroccan-style villa she’s living, and is deep into a secret relationship with slinky female model Tracy (Greta Lee). Sending Jill to do her dirty work, Heather at the eleventh hour drops out of a feature commitment, making writer-director Greg (Nelson Franklin) insane and her agent Jamie (Michelle Forbes) furious. She’s even refusing to do reshoots on a previous project. There’s no shortage of pissed off people openly wishing they could kill the elusive Heather.
Meanwhile, Heather does her best to shut out the drama, hiding behind the shield of her mellow best-girlfriend rapport with Jill, who has her own ambitions to move up in the industry, possibly developing projects with her boss. Heather’s need to shrug off responsibility may partly explain why she’s so willing to indulge the attentions of look-alike superfan Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a borderline-stalker who ambushes her idol with Jill at an Eagle Rock eatery and is quick to post breathless Instagram evidence of the encounter.
Paparazzo Stan (James Ransone) is sniffing like a skeevy bloodhound around the story of Heather’s seismic love life, and the pop of a flash convinces her that someone captured a shot of her in a smooch with Tracy. Confiding that she feels unsafe, Heather asks to borrow the .22 snub-nose revolver she’s seen at Jill’s apartment, which sure enough, not long after becomes the weapon in a bloody homicide.
All that happens in a superbly paced first half-hour or so, unfolding most of the way in richly textured nighttime scenes captured by cinematographer Andrew Reed’s sinuous camera with splashes of neon color and pools of burnished low-light glow amid the inky blackness. Keegan DeWitt’s electro-jazzy score adds to the unsettling effect, communicating from the start that danger pervades the air. Even a boozy moment of reprieve, in which Heather, Jill and Tracy escape reality with some private partying in a K-town karaoke bar, has a surreal, dream quality.
John Cho shows up in an initially promising role, though he ends up being underused as Detective Edward Ahn, who sidles up to the visibly traumatized Jill without making it entirely clear whether she’s a serious suspect. But her self-protective instincts prompt her to keep giving him the slip as she begins pursuing her own trail of clues. That leads to testy encounters with cool-headed Jamie (the always-excellent Forbes is wonderfully brittle in her single scene), irrational Greg, volatile, douchy Devin and inscrutable Tracy, who conveniently keeps a hot motorcycle and fabulous leathers in her garage to provide Jill with a fast and furious exit.
There are droll meta aspects in Greg’s reflection that if he were writing the screenplay, he’d be looking for motive, opportunity and capacity, making Devin the too-obvious culprit. But despite ably littering Jill’s investigation with suspect characters and false leads, indie writer-director Katz (Cold Weather, Land Ho!) parcels out a few too many clear hints to make the eventual outcome either surprising or completely satisfying. The big reveal happens with a casual indifference that would have benefited from a tighter-coiled release, and a leap forward in the wrap-up scene (with a cameo from Ricki Lake) seems a tad thin in its commentary on obsessively scrutinized celebrities taking back control over their image. The sardonic twist doesn’t quite pay off.
While it’s consistently involving and often wryly amusing, the film works best as a character study of an observant outsider — Jill, like Katz, is a transplant from Portland, Ore. — navigating the Hollywood fishbowl, albeit in the far-reaching shadows. Seen often in mirrors or reflective windows, Kirke is terrific, maintaining just enough of a sphinx-like air to keep us questioning her behavior, while Kravitz also makes a strong impression as a flaky beauty whose entitlement doesn’t exclude genuine affection or need.
Katz deftly manipulates mood and tension throughout, making expert use of locations in and around Los Angeles, from ultra-modern real-estate porn to vintage settings from an earlier era; from funky hideaway bars to sprawling exteriors overlooking the glimmering city below. He creates a sleek package that remains highly watchable, even if its denouement disappoints.
Cast: Lola Kirke, Zoe Kravitz, John Cho, Ricki Lake, Greta Lee, Michelle Forbes, Nelson Franklin, Reeve Carney, Jessica Parker Kennedy, James Ransone, Todd Louiso, Marianne Rendon
Production companies: Syncopated Films, PASTEL, in association with Rough House Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Aaron Katz
Producers: Mynette Louie, Sara Murphy, Adele Romanski
Director of photography: Andrew Reed
Production designer: Tracy Dishman
Costume designer: Emily Batson
Music: Keegan DeWitt
Editor: Aaron Katz
Casting: Yesi Ramirez, Wittney Horton
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
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