“They were nice,” says Erin (Megan Boone) of some passersby, to the boyfriend with whom she has recently reconciled with after a year-long hiatus, as they trek though the woods on a camping holiday. “Everyone’s nice when they’re on vacation.” Cal (David Nordstrom) replies drily, before promptly going on to prove that that’s simply not the case. Screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Adele Romanski’s partially Kickstarter-funded debut film is minutely small in scope, taking place over a few days in a national park, with two other campers and an unseen bear the only notable players aside from the lead pair. Its narrowness of focus is both a strength and a weakness -- Romanski is impressively insightful and surefooted on this limited canvas, but so much so that one kind of wishes she had set herself a broader remit, even if the result might not have been so elegantly contained.
As it is, “Leave Me Like You Found Me” is a careful, premeditated film, that feels as though a real perfectionist has gone over every line of the spartan script to make sure every moment rings with the same well-observed truthfulness. From what they say to each other, we gradually piece together a fragmentary picture of Cal and Erin’s relationship history. They had been long-term girlfriend/boyfriend until they split up. The reasons are only hinted at, but nonetheless haunt the fringes of their conversations; no one wants to dwell on past miseries when trying to start over (a phrase used frequently), but hurt was done, and neither can wholly let go of that either. And so their relationship occupies an interesting, and only rarely depicted space, where they enjoy neither the blush of getting-to-know-you passion, nor the comfort and trust level of long-time lovers. The love that exists between them, if such it is, feels less like a source of joy and strength, than it does a thing they have resigned themselves to.
If their reasons for breaking up are never exactly made manifest, their reasons for getting back together are more overtly analyzed by the pair, with those discussions usually initiated by Erin. Ultimately, they missed each other -- Erin dreamt about Cal, Cal expected each ringing phone to be a call from Erin. And so coming back together seems a logical bit of repair work, refilling the gaps in each other’s lives like so much Polyfilla. But neither seems to have considered how not liking how you felt without someone is not necessarily the most positive reason to decide you should be with them. Add to that the natural inclination to idealize the ended relationship while they were apart, only to have to face those realities that nostalgia had glossed over, and you have a quite a few pounds of barometric pressure bearing down on an already fragile foundation.
Romanski controls the tone tightly, managing to negotiate the ever-widening divide between their close moments and their arguments gracefully and believably. And the setting against these lovely backdrops of ancient trees and clear lakes definitely adds a layer of claustrophobia-by-counterpoint to the film. Structurally the narrative is intriguing too. It is almost as if the couple start off united by the desire to make it work this time, by the beauty of the landscape and by their simple satisfaction at being together again. But that mood only lasts until the first irritation, the first bitten-off comment, which is dismissed, but never resolved (none of their disagreements are, really). And so the pendulum swings between lovey moments and resentful arguments and silences, in an arc that grows wider as each day passes, before culminating in a hateful, recriminatory fight where Erin exclaims “Why did I forget what this was like?” which is followed, surprisingly, not by a break up, but by a scene of murmured reconciliation. On this ambivalent note the film ends, and if as viewers, we can’t help but see the relationship as fatally compromised, it seems it might be some time more before the participants themselves realize that the chasm between the good times and the bad becomes simply unbridgeable.
We could wish it was a little more daring, a little more outre or a little more transgressive, because if “Leave You Like Me Found Me” has one chief positive effect, it is not really on account of this film, but the one that might come after. Romanski is undoubtedly a filmmaker to watch, and the subtlety and restraint with which she infuses her debut makes us very curious to see where she goes next. Especially if she proceeds with a little less caution, and allows herself to color outside the lines a little more. [B]