By Gabe Toro | The Playlist March 19, 2011 at 5:26AM
At the start of “Another Earth,” there are two shocks administered to the audience. The first is that another planet has been discovered on the other side of the Sun, and it so closely resembles Earth that the brand new discovery is being referred to as Earth 2. This would be a galactic shocker, of course, but we are moved more by the second shock, which is the recklessness of teenaged Rhoda (Brit Marling), who drunkenly crashes her car into the vehicle of composer John (William Mapother). John survives, but his wife and child are now dead.
Four years later, Rhoda has emerged from prison. No longer a minor, she is thrust into a new beginning, as she must re-establish the bonds she had with a family that seems preoccupied with her brother’s collegiate success. She has transitioned into adulthood, but circumstance has forced her back into the places that defined her childhood. She is trapped living with her parents, forced to occupy the same room where she grew up. And when she does find a job, it is as a custodian at her former high school. When she hears snippets of gossip in the girl’s room, remembering the party kid she used to be, it is borderline ghostly.
On a whim, she tries to make amends by visiting John, still despondent four years later. John mills about alone in his empty house, wearing his bathrobe all day, watching bad TV and playing video games. He doesn’t know Rhoda, given that she was a minor at the time of her crime, but when she tries to apologize, she can’t bring herself to say the words. Understandable, as it is a highly charged situation.
Unfortunately, there’s something artificial and altogether movie-ish about what does happen -- she offers him a free trial as some sort of maid. Despite not having any cleaning material, he hires her after the trial, and she begins weekly visits to his house. This story construct almost seems right out of the romantic comedy playbook -- the character avoiding the truth by conjuring up an impossibly convoluted lie to get closer to someone. Of course, this isn’t a comedy, so it makes it even harder to swallow.
And sadly, Mapother’s John isn’t nearly as interesting as Rhoda. His body language and muted interest comes off as actorly Mournface, as he mopes around the house when he's not staring off into space. It’s a concentrated effort to be low-key, and Mapother, a veteran actor, never feels all that convincing. We do understand why he brightens up in Rhoda’s presence -- as played by Marling, she has a smoky, sensual maturity beyond her years. While she stays active cleaning his house, it’s almost as if, with her blond locks and penetrating stare, she moves in peaceful slow motion. To John, she is not a woman as much as she is a moment in time, and it’s the first moment to him that feels separate from the death of his family.
While Rhoda continues working for John, she develops a fascination with Earth 2. These science fiction segments of the film play out like a half-remembered dream, with Rhoda’s turmoil taking center stage. We catch only snippets of news reports and extended scientific explanations, but all signs point to Earth 2 being a planet almost identical to ours, perhaps with mirror versions of ourselves. Rhoda’s interest in the planet is the ultimate do-over, the greatest chance to start anew. On paper, the idea of a drama based around a dead child and the discovery of a new planet seems like an unwieldy combination, but director Mike Cahill is smart enough to keep these ideas on the periphery. In real life, most people would not be watching TV mouth agape, as they do in regular Hollywood science fiction films, they would only catch the beguiling tail-end of reports on the news, likely on their way to coping with their own personal issues. Outer space exploration often isn’t as interesting as where we get our next paycheck.
This is the second SXSW film co-written by Marling (this time with an assist from director Cahill), and it’s clear she has an interest in mixing the mundane with the outlandish. Both this and “Sound Of My Voice” tell recognizably human stories against an eerie genre background, both with a haunting, unshakable vibe that follows you long after you left the theater. Her scripts leave nagging questions unanswered, both of them finishing on tantalizing cliffhangers that lead you to believe the films themselves were merely the tip of the philosophical iceberg. “Another Earth” is more proof that she is a commanding presence on film and, behind the camera, she has a distinct storytelling style and the ability to help craft a story that challenges preconceived notions. [B]