The synopsis for "Sparrow's Dance," the new pocket-sized film from writer/director Noah Buschel, makes it literally sound like the most boring movies ever forged. It's about an unnamed agoraphobic woman (Marin Ireland, most notably from TV shows like "Homeland" and "The Killing"), who struggles with making the simplest human contact. All of that has to change when her apartment becomes flooded and she has to allow a plumber named Wes (Paul Sparks, the colorful goon Mickey Doyle on "Boardwalk Empire") in to fix the leak. That is pretty much as far as it goes for plot. But, amazingly, unburdened with excessive narrative and weighted by a pair of outstanding performances, "Sparrow's Dance" (under Buschel's inventive direction) absolutely flies.
Much of the movie obviously hinges on Ireland's performance, which is thankfully pitch-perfect. The early part of the movie (almost the first act, really), is just Ireland's character going about her business. She rides her exercise bike (always accompanied by some synth-y pop music), she goes to the bathroom, she watches television, and she sometimes takes out the small pistol she keeps in her kitchen. (It's a testament to the cramped nature of New York City real estate that we thought, 'Well, if you've got to be stuck inside an apartment, at least this one has decent square footage.') Flashes of how crippling her problem is crop up: when greeted by a delivery man, she makes up a story about coming out of the shower or talking to her friend on the phone, and then slides the money underneath the door. "You want me to leave the food on the floor?" the deliveryman asks. "Uh, yeah," she answers.
Ireland has an unconventional, expressive face, and if the movie consisted of a single static shot, centered on her mug, you would have no problem watching it. (Buschel decided to shoot the movie in the squared-off 4:3 aspect ratio, so she is front-and-center.) She's cute but not in a bouncy television show way, and you believe that she could have gone off the grid without a lot of people asking questions. When she seems pained or anguished or even just reacting emotionally to something she's watching on television, you can tell that she feels it deeply. And she adds enough flourishes, both physical and internal, that make her character engaging and entertaining to watch, even when she's huffing it on that stationary bike. There's something "off" about the performance, in a good way. You're happy to spend the whole movie with her.
This early section of the movie has its own particular groove, reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho's section of the underrated triptych travelogue "Tokyo," entitled "Shaking Tokyo." Both films feature characters imprisoned by their own psychology, forced to make contact with the outside world after some calamitous event (in "Shaking Tokyo" it's an earthquake, here it's a flooded bathroom). When the second person enters the picture, both films take on an entirely different dynamic. In "Sparrow's Dance," it also marks the debut of the chunky title card, a good half-hour into the movie. From that point, the movie focuses on the relationship between Wes and this young girl, him attempt to woo her (and eventually get out of the apartment), and her resisting. They are both characters in need of change, symbolized by her reluctance to leave the apartment and the fact that he is always wearing his plumbing overalls – they are confined by their lives and have to get outside of them (sometimes literally) to have a solid relationship.
With such a sparse premise, things could have run out of steam ridiculously fast. Thankfully Buschel keeps things playful and stylistic. He creates a nicely traceable rhythm to her daily routine, which acts as its own kind of structural backbone, so that when that routine changes (like when she gets ready for her first big date with Wes), it really means something. The aforementioned aspect ratio suggests entrapment in a way that few things in the actual movie could – you almost long for the film to expand to a widescreen as a symbol of her expanding freedom and self-confidence. There's also a standout sequence where Wes and the girl are dancing in a super-long take that starts outside of the apartment set. You can see lights flooding into the apartment, surrounded by the darkness of the soundstage, and as it pushes in, we get closer and closer to the couple dancing. It captures the movie's woozily romantic spirit, and you are more focused on the pair than how potentially showy and off-putting this shot could have been.
Wes and the girl have long conversations in bed, and since there's a blinking neon sign outside the apartment's window (oh that's how she can afford it), these sequences are lit solely by that blinking red light. It's gorgeous to look at (Gaspar Noe would approve) but it also speaks volumes about the film – the periods of the scene that are cast in blackness are just as vital as the ones that are illuminated. You don't learn a terribly great deal about either character but you grow to care about them deeply, and the movie's ending is as brightly triumphant as the destruction of any oversized comic book threat in any of the big budget Hollywood movies. "Sparrow's Dance" is a tiny film that is deeply affecting, smartly acted and thoroughly charming. It's one of the year's best films and also one of the smallest. We can't wait to see what Buschel does next. [A]