Remember the slightly awkward moments between Joaquin Phoenix and his operating system in the not-too-distant future of Spike Jonze's “Her,” where a relationship was blossomed between a man and a machine? The lack of a physical element in that scenario starts to feel normal because one half of that equation never had a body. But in today's equivalent, when a man is dancing with a laptop in his hand, desperately trying to cling on to a loved one, the lack of physical presence isn't just awkward; it's heartbreaking. Carlos Marques-Marcet's stirring feature debut “10,000 KM,” about a relationship getting tested by long distance, takes a minimal approach in wrestling with the emotional demons borne when a long-term couple get separated for a year. Two actors. Two locations. Two laptops. One bittersweet movie.
Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) are a Spanish couple who share an apartment and a life in Barcelona. Sergi is studying for the boards so that he can become fully certified to teach music, and Alex is waiting for her big break with her freelance photography so that she can work a job she genuinely loves. She has a British accent when she speaks English that Sergi finds sexy, and he has a knack for taking long showers in the morning which makes her call him “Squid.” They've been together for seven years, and they're both ready to take that next step in their relationship by having children. But everything is put on hold when Alex receives a business offer in an email one morning. They are funding her a full year in Los Angeles so that she can finish up her work on a project. The timing couldn't be worse for their baby-making plans, but what's one more year? After some back and forth in the morning, the title cuts in with the distance between L.A and Barcelona, and the counter displaying number of days spent apart begins answering the question.
This is the kind of debut directors should be making. After a stint helming short feature films, Marques-Marcet keeps it simple for his first feature and gets his feet wet in a gradual, mature, and controlled way. "10,000 KM" is unpolished in certain places, and the claustrophobia of the two locations—their apartment in Barcelona, and her place in L.A.—has the walls closing in on the story and actors, revealing all imperfections, but you can admire the intelligence of picking a story like this to experiment and make your grand cinematic entrance with. Love is a universal wound, and tightening your first full-length story around the simple question of long-distance relationships is clever and should make almost any viewer out there wince with empathy. “Long-distance relationships never work out.” How many times have you heard someone (or yourself) say that one? "10,000 KM" twists this modern axiom by throwing it at a seven-year long relationship on the brink of creating a family. Alex and Sergi's relationship, and their true understanding of one another, is a little questionable when they begin to unravel as the day-counter reaches the midway mark, but neither could be blamed for taking the leap and believing that one year couldn't do much damage if they've lasted seven already.
It's not only the subject matter that this exciting young Spanish filmmaker chooses smartly in "10,000 KM." He plays around with technique in a way that actually adds depth and dimension to his story and characters. The most obvious example here is the opening 20 plus minutes of Alex and Sergi in their Barcelona apartment, having sex, getting ready for breakfast, showering, hearing the news about L.A., discussing the job offer, and coming to a decision, all in one single, uncut take. The title cuts in to sever the status quo and the next thing we see is Alex and Sergi communicating through Skype. Long takes are in grave danger of becoming an artistic gimmick, but the fabulous thing here is that it never calls attention to itself by sweeping camera movements, and makes for a powerful opening for a movie about what it's like to be physically apart. The loving unity of those opening moments builds a strong foundation for the entire film, and makes the pair's vulnerability all the more potent during their most trying moments. There are more examples of Marques-Marcet playing around with the medium, like a split screen sequence featuring Google Maps, calling to attention a creative spirit ready to embrace and play around with the art-form, but he does so only when it enhances his story, and his characters.
Finally, we must talk about the two actors who only have each other to rely on during the whole thing, and sometimes not even that. You'll have seen Natalia Tena most recently playing the crusty good-hearted wildling Osha in “Game Of Thrones,” but chances are slim that you'd have seen her co-star David Verdaguer (Spain's answer to Oscar Isaac) anywhere unless you've been catching up on your Spanish TV movies. In any case, they needed to be terrific in order for "10,000 KM" to work like it does and they are. Tena especially showing her versatility and range, whether she's acting on webcam or desperately trying to follow cooking instructions. The two of them having been rightly picking up acting awards on the festival circuit, including one from this year's SXSW. Their gentle, natural performances are part of the wonderfully subdued balance Marques-Marcet manages to find and sustain in "10,000 KM," making a love story that keeps sentimentality at a perfect distance. [B+]