At first blush, "The One I Love" appears to be just the latest standard operating relationship dramedy to pass through Sundance. But while the relationship at the center of the film is the engine that drives the narrative, there are much more mysterious things going on under the hood. The film centers on Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), a couple currently experiencing a rough patch in their marriage. We meet them mid-therapy session in couples counseling, where we learn that Ethan has made a transgression that Sophie isn’t quite ready to forgive. So far, any attempts to rekindle the magic have gone poorly, as evidenced by Ethan’s botched attempt at recreating their first date. On that aforementioned first evening out together, the pair snuck into a stranger’s swimming pool, believing him not to be home, but quickly discovering the opposite and dashing from the property. This time the owner really isn’t home, and so they just float there as a listless, bitter reminder of just how far they’ve come from that early romance.
Their therapist (Ted Danson, the only other actor to appear in the film) suggests that since they’re both trying their best to work through various domestic issues, they might want to try a weekend retreat at a vacation home where he’s had great success with past couples. Ethan and Sophie decide to take him up on the offer and set out for a relaxing weekend at the secluded country house. Upon arrival they admire their idyllic surroundings and hope that they too will conclude the weekend as revived as the other couples who stayed there. But after settling in, a strange and surreal misunderstanding leads to a fight that neither can quite what started it in the first place. The pair admit that "some weird 'Twilight Zone' shit is happening" and consider pulling the plug on the whole trip, but decide to stick it out and confront their issues head on.
Though the majority of the film takes place in the house, “The One I Love” never feels suffocating, and that’s really due to Moss and Duplass (also a producer here), the only actors on screen for 99% of the film. Throughout the weekend, Ethan and Sophie each explore the gulf between the person they’re married to and the person they’d like them to be. The duo have a natural chemistry together and are each adept at revealing all the different shades of their characters. We should mention it’s also delightful to see Moss, always a wonderful actress, playing a contemporary character (as she does in another festival highlight "Listen Up Philip"). Though she’s received plenty of well-deserved accolades for her work on "Mad Men" and "Top Of The Lake," she has an uncanny ability to elevate seemingly ordinary parts into something really special, and we hope to see her getting more roles like this in the future.
The film asks what the ideal version of your partner would look like, and whether the small things really end up making a big difference. If Ethan exercised a bit, tussled up his hair and learned to relax, would that really make Sophie happier? If Sophie lightened up on Ethan for his eating habits and was generally more supportive, would Ethan appreciate her more? In relationships, there’s always an inclination to try to “fix” the other person’s flaws—but as anyone who’s tried knows, putting that pressure on your partner can be dangerous. The more we get to observe Ethan and Sophie, the more we learn about the seemingly trivial issues and communication breakdowns that led them to the state they’re in today.
Directed by Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell & Mary Steenburgen in his debut feature) and inspired by the early Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaborations, "The One I Love" explores relationship dysfunction through an intriguing, high-concept premise (that we can’t really discuss here). It’s a very small-scale, unassuming relationship movie (with a heady little twist), but it sneaks up on you. Justin Lader’s screenplay is contained but also funny, emotionally honest and nails its pivot from the conventional to something much richer. Things never get oppressively heavy, but you’ll still have plenty to chew on after you’ve left the theater. Evidently, the film also features a fair bit of improv—though it’s not at
all apparent while watching it. Like the most successful special
effects, the best improv is usually the stuff you don't even notice. If
it feels real, you don’t question it. Though its ambitions may seem modest, its execution is really remarkable (even more so once you dig into the film’s magic trick). Recently acquired by Radius-TWC for a likely theatrical/VOD release, the film should find an audience, as it’s hard to imagine that it won’t ring true for anyone who’s ever been on the downhill side of a formerly stable relationship. [B]