Before he became one of the more powerful filmmakers in Hollywood, Joss Whedon was known for his quips. These were rattled off and recited by a series of characters who all spoke in the same easily identifiable, highly stylized, pop culture-infused geek language of Whedon himself. (Whedon’s best collaborators, like Drew Goddard and Marti Noxon, knew how to approximate this code better than others.) But there was always another side of Whedon, exhibited in the best episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its cruelly underrated spin-off “Angel,” one that was incredibly sensitive and sincere. It’s this Whedon, the one more interested in pulling at your heartstrings than tickling your funny bone that is on display in “In Your Eyes,” a new supernatural romance that, if you can get past the occasional sappiness, is a pretty moving, offbeat little love story.
The movie begins with a young boy who suffers what appears to be a seizure in the middle of class, following a kind of shared vision of a young girl sledding down a hill and knocking herself out. Moments later, the characters are reintroduced as adults: Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is a small time criminal in New Mexico who has been recently released from prison and spends his days washing cars and trying to stay out of trouble, while Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) is something of a kept wife to a doctor (Mark Feuerstein) in New Hampshire. It’s been decades since they’ve been able to share each other’s senses, but once the connection is reestablished, it’s hard to let go.
These early sequences of the two of them getting to know each other through this shared experience are really cute and engaging, with both performers, who had to spend the movie acting on their own, really giving it their all. Dylan is a lovable rogue in the typical Joss Whedon mold (he could have easily been a crew mate on the good ship “Serenity”) and Stahl-David handles the (occasionally super-stylized) dialogue with aplomb. You get the sensation that, through this connection, he isn’t trying to be a better person because of the girl, but that she’s reawakened the drive and energy that was there all along. And Kazan, for her part, is luminous, gliding through the pseudo-metaphysical aspects of the story with ease, and applying her lovably neurotic stamp to the entire process. The story is always bordering on ludicrous, but it’s the weight and heart of these two actors that see it through.
“In Your Eyes” was written and produced by Whedon, and developed through his Bellwether Pictures shingle (Brin Hill directs). Bellwether was responsible for Whedon’s joyful black-and-white Shakespearean house party “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the budget for this movie seems to have been slightly higher—but not by much. This sometimes leads to clunky visual effects (like when the two characters’ “visions” overlap), and you desperately wish that a more lush, more expensive version of the screenplay would have been made to give the more nuanced aspects of the script the attention it deserves.
There will definitely be those who chuckle at some of the more earnestly sentimental moments of the movie, particularly during a sex scene where the two leads are touching themselves while on opposite sides of the country (editor Steve Pilgrim cross-cuts between them excitedly). Kazan has described the movie as a mash-up of Joss Whedon and Nicholas Sparks, which is slightly unfair but not totally off base. This is Whedon at his most big-hearted and easily accessible. Sure, there are genre aspects to the screenplay, but they’re hardly explored. For two humans gripped with this otherworldly ability, they don’t seem to question it at all. There isn’t any exploration as to where it came from or why they were chosen to possess it. Instead, it works almost completely on a metaphoric level.
And in that way, “In Your Eyes” is somewhat reminiscent of “Her,” in that they’re both films that explore how we connect with one another on a human level in a world filled with so much other stuff. Both films use the preexisting architecture of genre (science fiction and ghost stories) to keep things away from being didactic or overtly academic, forcing the viewer to look at their own lives through the lens of fantasy. But whereas “Her” was obsessed with the technological implications of modern coupling, “In Your Eyes” is entirely free of these trappings (in fact they use cell phones as an excuse as to why they’re always talking to themselves); it’s almost painfully earnest.
At 106 minutes, the conceit is probably dragged out for a little longer than it should, especially for a central concept that is so slender and weird (and there is probably one montage-set-to-an-inspirational-pop-song too many). Thankfully Whedon piles on the stakes and gives the movie more grit and texture as it moves along, recasting Rebecca’s husband, up until now just a controlling jerk, into the movie’s central villain, while giving Dylan more to deal with on the criminal side of things. But it’s hard to fault a movie whose central weakness is that it’s too damn sweet.
For those unshackled by brittle cynicism and willing to play in an imaginary realm far cuter than anything Joss Whedon has come up with before, then “In Your Eyes” will be a warmhearted delight (even with its somewhat sappy center). It’s a small movie with big ideas, anchored by a pair of lead performances that bring this esoteric, wholly involving vision of 21st century romance to the screen in a way that you can feel with all of your senses. [B+]
Watch the first three minutes of the movie below. The film is now available to watch in full on Vimeo for $5.