By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist June 13, 2014 at 4:55PM
A relentless self-exploration has steered actor and director Mark Webber’s filmmaking output, and increasingly it seems his preferred route of doing so is through quotation marks. Last year’s “The End of Love” starred Webber as “Mark,” an actor struggling in LA with his real-life son Isaac, and now—with a new romance and marriage to “Warm Bodies” actress Teresa Palmer—here arrives “The Ever After,” a similarly self-reflexive look at marriage hiding a dark undercurrent of anxiety and abuse.
We first glimpse the shores of Australia, and a series of quick cuts as Thomas (Webber) and Ava (Palmer) are wed, go clubbing, and frolic in the sea. A flash-forward then finds the couple years later in Los Angeles, drifted apart—Thomas jetting around U.S. as a fashion photographer, and former actress Ava at home parenting their young daughter. But that now-predictable structure, contrasting the highs and lows of love, doesn’t hold. Webber, who directed the film from his and Palmer’s script, quickly roots the action in the present, though what kind of present is up for further debate.
The film is pinned to the same bizarro LA and NY seen in “The End of Love”: figures like Rosario Dawson and Moby (who also contributed the score with Daniel Ahearn) pop up in cameos playing themselves, while Palmer’s own film work is also confusingly name-checked. The effect isn’t major—it just provokes a pause as you gauge what level of disconnect Webber and Palmer are working at with their cast of characters, distracting rather than inviting us in as a result. Scott Mescudi appears in one scene, and we spent that entire scene trying to determine whether he was playing Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, or simply Mescudi playing a musician in the vein of Kid Cudi, which likely wasn’t the intention.
Luckily, Palmer and Webber’s personalities shine through the meta-material, even if clarity is not their strong suit. “The Ever After” is a raw, unwieldy effort that builds in complexity due to the sheer range of emotion—not plot—thrown at the screen. Palmer, using her native Australian accent, delivers a standout performance here alongside Webber, as she conveys Ava’s outsider worries and formerly medicated state with skill and great empathy. This being a homegrown and hands-off production, it’s worthy that Webber takes two beats with a character like Palmer’s—erratic, stubborn, and saddled with sleep circles under her eyes—to strike away any quirks toward a more naturalistic feel. The effort shows.
In fact, it is when Webber and Palmer are apart and alone that the film is at its most intriguing. Together they gaze out laconically, assuring the other of their continued love. But when left to their own devices and temptations, whether with Thomas on a photo shoot in NY or Palmer befriending a shop owner (played by a carefree Melissa Leo), the characters come alive. They also burrow into the deeply uncomfortable tone of isolation and abuse with which Webber wrestles, thanks in part to subtly claustrophobic camerawork by Patrice Lucian Cochet (“Better Luck Tomorrow”).
Tension arrives early on from the film’s view on intimacy, and specifically the characters’ sexuality. It’s shown that Thomas and Ava share a very rough sex life, and that question of emotional and physical limits lingers throughout. Nowhere here does sex seem pleasurable. In fact, it’s uncertain until about halfway through scenes whether consent was even considered, for both male and female characters. The approach forms a very cold, shocking dynamic that, while handled mostly effectively, steamrolls tones and moments surrounding it, and causes stretches of emotional distance in an already brief 87-minute film.
Still, a warm, romantic account of a marriage was never Webber and Palmer’s intention. At the same time “The Ever After” isn’t entirely a gut-punch relationship that will leave you ragged either. Instead, it’s a more formally loose look at a flawed couple separated from one another, trying to sort out their personal directions, only to see that ambition warp once they reunite. It’s a flawed, bold, and well-acted affair, and with a director like Webber who’s naturally averse to set genres or conventions, his and Palmer’s personal film succeeds on its willingness to go anywhere. [B-]