'Jonathan': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Too committed to its premise to be seen as a gimmick.

Bill Oliver's debut drama casts Ansel Elgort as two people who live in the same body.

"I wish there were two of me" is the eternal cry of the overstressed, the work/life unbalanced, those with no time to pursue their dreams. Their fantasies bear little resemblance to the life endured by the title character in Bill Oliver's Jonathan, a young man whose body holds two distinct personalities in it and, consequently, affords each man only half a life. The kind of no-FX sci-fi that has brightened festival schedules in recent years, the debut feature succeeds thanks to a credibly bifurcated performance by star Ansel Elgort. That name should help attract attention to a movie whose quiet approach might otherwise limit mainstream appeal.

The exact nature of Jonathan's condition doesn't emerge until well into the film, but within a couple of minutes we understand this: Jonathan is in charge of his body 12 hours a day, waking at 7 a.m. and going to bed at 3 p.m.; he gets four hours of sleep before his body becomes the property of Jon, whose entire life takes place at night. In order to take care of practicalities in their apartment and prevent misunderstandings with neighbors, each man records a video note at the end of each day, filling his brother in on who they saw that day and what they did.

A straight arrow with nerdy hair and erect posture, Jonathan works half-time as a draftsman in an architecture firm where he'd love to have a real career. When Jon takes over, his hair is tousled and he favors plaid; his videos begin "Yo, what up," and though he has a part-time job as well, he clearly enjoys the social life that Jonathan lacks.

Identifying fully with Jonathan, the film only sees Jon through those videos. So we're just as curious as Jonathan when he starts to realize Jon isn't telling him everything about his nocturnal activities. "I've been feeling a little tired lately," Jonathan reports, wondering if everything is okay with them. Soon, he hires an investigator and verifies that Jon hasn't been giving him his full four hours of sleep each night.

Jon has been dating a bartender, Elena (Suki Waterhouse, of The Bad Batch), which violates rules the personalities have set up to keep their life orderly. The screenplay offers the barest justification for this rule, and really should explain it more. But it's clearly a betrayal of trust, and being forced to end the relationship leaves Jon distraught — Jonathan wakes up on the floor one morning, a half-dead bottle of whiskey in front of him, nursing Jon's hangover. Jon goes radio-silent, not responding to the video diaries Jonathan continues to leave for him every day.

Without ruining too many of the specifics, two women come to bridge these men's lives: Elena, after Jonathan goes to meet her and explains things by showing her a scientific journal about Jon/Jonathan's condition; and Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson), the author of that article, who has studied the men from early childhood and helped them achieve equilibrium. In each case, a woman who wants the best for the duo may need to choose sides. But when sympathizing with one triggers misbehavior from the other, how are these two going to survive in the same body?

Some of the hurdles to the men's success would appear to have remedies the script chooses not to see: If Jonathan explained his predicament to his bosses, for instance, they would certainly work with him. But others, like the danger that one personality will overtake and destroy the other, bring real stakes to the film, especially since Jon and Jonathan continue to love each other while they're estranged. Things get dire in the third act, when the consciousness-flip routine becomes erratic — unpredictably, one might have just a minute awake in the body before control returns to the other — and each individual's actions threaten the other physically.

Where it had previously been clinical, the film's photography and direction come unmoored here, matching the anxiety of Elgort's performance. As he moves from one blackout-in-public to the next, we begin to see an inevitable end approaching. Oliver and his screenwriters may employ one last little cheat in their delivery of this conclusion. But it's one that speaks truthfully and movingly to the bond between beings who were separated before they ever really got to meet.

Production companies: Manis Film, Raised By Wolves
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson
Director: Bill Oliver
Screenwriters: Peter Nickowitz, Bill Oliver, Gregory Davis
Producers: Randy Manis, Ricky Tollman
Executive producers: Robert Halmi, Jim Reeve, Neal Dodson
Director of photography: Zach Kuperstein
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Tomas Vengris
Composers: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Casting directors: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales: Nick Ogiony, CAA

100 minutes