‘The Other Half’: SXSW Review

The Other Half Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Erin Simkin
Draining but not especially revealing.

Tom Cullen and Tatiana Maslany co-star in Joey Klein’s feature debut, a fraught romantic drama.

Two maladjusted adults attempt to form a stable relationship in Joey Klein’s emotionally intense and insular drama, but repeatedly fall victim to their behavioral dysfunctions. A tortured tale that tends more toward high drama than outright melodrama, The Other Half could eventually find limited acceptance in art house releases or on VOD platforms.

Uncompromising both narratively and stylistically, the film centers on social misfit Nickie (Tom Cullen), who has spent years aimlessly drifting following his return to Canada after growing up in the U.K. Now in his late 20s, he holds down a restaurant job and a taxi assignment, barely making ends meet. A confrontation with an angry customer gets him fired from his server position, but only after attractive young customer Emily (Tatiana Maslany) comes to his defense. Flattered by her intervention, he gets her number and the two begin hanging out. Still deeply traumatized by the disappearance of his young brother one innocuous school day five years earlier, Nickie conceals his grief under layers of bravado and nonconformity, ready to lash out at just about anyone who either intentionally or inadvertently looks at him the wrong way.

Emily is in even worse emotional shape, suffering from a severe bipolar disorder that leaves her barely able to care for herself between cycles of depression and elation. Nickie happens to catch her on an upswing and their relationship quickly intensifies almost to the exclusion of everyone else they know, but when her upbeat mood erupts into full-blown mania, Emily’s protective father Jacob (Henry Czerny) reasserts custody and has her institutionalized. After a year she reemerges in a more balanced state, but whether Emily and Nickie can successfully reconnect and form a productive relationship will depend on both of them curbing their emotional excesses, which neither has ever been much good at.

The suddenness and intensity of their bonding is just one indication that this is a relationship based on deep emotional need and connection, but threatened by demons that refuse to retreat. While Emily’s dislocation is clearly evident in her unpredictable behavior, Nickie’s trauma manifests with almost chronic melancholy and sudden, vaguely glimpsed visions of his missing brother, who seems to be leading him somewhere. Klein conveys his characters’ shifting mental states with expressionistic sequences that are often unevenly framed, shot from behind his subjects or even unfocused. The result can be intentionally disorienting, but not always particularly revealing.

By contrast, the performances are far more compelling, especially Maslany (Orphan Black) as the unbalanced Emily. One revealing scene that finds her rejecting her meds while caught in the grip of a relentless manic episode is almost frightening to watch, as Maslany cackles and wails, self-destructively exhibiting Emily’s inability to control, or even recognize, her behavior. Cullen’s (Downton Abbey) turn is much more internalized, focused on Nickie's search for relief from his unending grief, fervently hoping that Emily can provide his salvation, almost as desperately as she clings to him for her own survival.

Production companies: Prodigy Pictures, Motel Pictures, JoBro Productions

Cast: Tom Cullen, Tatiana Maslany, Suzanne Clement, Mark Rendall, Henry Czerny

Director-writer: Joey Klein

Producers: Nicole Hilliard-Forde, Jonathan Bronfman, Joey Klein

Executive producers: Jay Firestone, Vanessa Piazza, Tom Cullen, Tatiana Maslany, David Miller, Mark Gingras, John Laing, Hussain Amarshi

Julia Sereny, Jennifer Kawaja

Director of photography: Bobby Shore

Production designer: Chris Crane

Costume designer: Anya Taraboulsy

Editor: James Vandewater

Music: Tom Cullen, Joey Klein

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Competition)

Not rated, 103 minutes