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It’s a familiar story: Girl meets boy. She, who does not know herself well yet, finds his performed confidence, and the rudeness masked as honesty, attractive. His emotional distance is alluring. They fall into lust, although she pines for love. He gets bored, restless, or something like that. She grows antsy. The relationship (it’s fair to call it that, right?) dissolves.
True Things, directed by Harry Wootliff (Only You), tries to reflect the emotional core of this tumultuous story. It’s an intentionally jagged film, by which I mean the rocky patches and abrupt shifts, the odd dreams and uncanny fantasies are a commitment to the poetry of this intoxicating romantic experience. But the devices don’t always make the narrative — which begs for more detail and logic — easier to believe, and despite strong performances from the two leads, the story sometimes feels inert, nothing like the love it wants to show.
Kate (Ruth Wilson), who works in a benefits office in the coastal English town of Ramsgate, is bored. She spends her days fantasizing about escaping to a beach with a lover who doesn’t exist. What she wants from life is not entirely clear, but it seems as though she drifts through her days, which turn into weeks, which suddenly become months and then years. That is, until an inscrutable man (Tom Burke, of The Souvenir) walks into her workplace.
He’s been recently released from prison and wants to check on a claim. At first she doesn’t notice his intense eye contact, how smoothly he closes the space between them. And then she does. He asks her to lunch, she politely declines. After work, she sees him outside her office. She ditches her friend Alison (Haley Squires) and then has sex with this man in a parking lot. There’s an undeniable chemistry between Wilson and Burke, and they play coy lovers with ease. Licked lips, sneaked glances and labored breathing create scintillating encounters.
It’s a shame, then, that the actual story, the plot points that move us from A to B, don’t possess that same energy. After their first date, Kate and the man orbit each other. The euphoria of this love moves her to act in increasingly strange ways: She starts skipping work, ditching her friend and avoiding her family. She tells no one about this man, whose number is saved in her phone under “Blond.” Later, we learn their dalliance is a fireable offense for government employee Kate. Secrecy adds another layer to their illicit encounters.
As Kate spends more time with Blond, though, it seems strange that we, the viewers, do not learn more about either of them. True Things paints its characters in hazy tones. Kate and Blond frustratingly remain sketches for most of the film. While that kind of vagueness has its own power, the real excitement of love stories comes from the ability to root for the couple’s success or demise. But to do that, you need an anchor. Who is Kate? What does she want? What is Blond’s name? What is he looking for?
What we do know is this: Blond is unreliable, but the sex is great. He thinks they are soul mates. Kate leaps at every chance to hang out with the young man, growing increasingly attached to him and his impulses. His observations and behavior verge on abusive, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. In one particularly harrowing scene, Blond takes Kate to a party and then ditches her for several hours. Drunk and high, she wanders the house looking for him, asking strangers if they’ve seen the blond man she came with. When she finally finds him, she demands to know why he left her. He responds incredulously and insists that she wandered off when he went to get a beer.
Kate loses herself slowly, and True Things renders the destabilizing process with sensitivity. As she becomes more like Blond (she adopts his opinions and parrots his observations to her friends and family), she becomes more addicted to his unreliable presence. She spends evenings drafting texts she never sends and waiting for him to return her unanswered calls. As Kate heads toward an emotional and mental break, she ignores opportunities that might pull her from the brink. Her friend Alison unsuccessfully tries to intervene by arranging for Kate to go on a date with a different guy. But it’s a disaster and ends up straining the women’s relationship.
Where True Things struggles to be convincing is in how Kate finds herself. Despite how little she knows about Blond, she continues to go back to him and give him second or third chances. I kept wondering about the emotional tether: Does he remind her of someone in her life? What beyond his spontaneity does she find attractive? Although the film handles the process of being subsumed by love well, the characters ultimately feel too thin to make Kate’s awakening persuasive.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Lady Lazarus, The Bureau, Riff Raff
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Tom Burke, Haley Squires, Elizabeth Rider, Frank McCusker
Director: Harry Wootliff
Screenwriters: Harry Wootliff, Molly Davies
Based on the novel by Deborah Kay Davies
Producers: Tristan Goligher, Ruth Wilson, Ben Jackson, Jude Law
Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Eva Yates, Lizzie Francke, Vincent Gadelle
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Andy Drummond
Costume designer: Matthew Price
Editor: Tim Fulford
Composer: Alex Baranowski
Casting director: Kahleen Crawford
Sales: The Bureau Sales
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