The possibility that there's another version of you out there - and of me, and of everyone we know - provides the mind-teasing premise of "Another Earth."
It's heady stuff, the kind of notion you'd toss around with your friends after too many beers and achieve no satisfactory answers, then go home and have strange dreams. But such philosophical fodder is contrasted with an achingly personal tale of loss and redemption.
These two conflicting dynamics comprise the feature debut from Mike Cahill, who serves as director, co-writer, producer and cinematographer. He offers an intriguing juxtaposition of melodramatic elements - highs and lows that are the stuff of Greek tragedy - with a stripped-down, low-budget aesthetic. Cahill favors dusky grays and blues which enhance the mysterious, sci-fi vibe, and grainy, hand-held camerawork that provides a feeling of intimacy as well as restlessness.
He co-wrote the script with Brit Marling, who's also the film's star. Marling has a natural beauty and immediacy to her emotions that makes her impossible to stop watching. She's young, bright and fearless, and that's an exciting thing to see.
For much of "Another Earth," though, her character isn't exactly at her best. At the start, Marling's Rhoda Williams is an aspiring astrophysicist who's just learned she's been accepted to MIT. Surely a brilliant future awaits her. But as she's driving home from a party, she's distracted by something blue looming far away in the night sky, which it turns out is a second version of our own planet. She crashes into another car, killing a little boy and his pregnant mother and leaving the father in a coma. Cahill's low-key approach makes the accident even more disturbing than if he'd amped it up with overpowering music and too many edits.
After four years in prison, Rhoda emerges with none of the vivacity or inquisitiveness that marked her youth, and all she wants is to be left alone. She returns to her family's home and takes a job as a janitor at her old high school in West Haven, Conn., but clearly still feels anxious. Impulsively, Rhoda seeks out the man who survived the crash, someone who was at the height of his power in his own field: John Burroughs (William Mapother), a former composer and professor at Yale. He now spends his post-coma days self-medicating and barely functioning in his dilapidated house, and Mapother's quiet, lost presence makes this man's pain palpable.
Rhoda knocks on the door to apologize, express her feelings of shame, remorse, something - but she panics when he answers and instead pretends to work for a maid service with an offer of a free trial cleaning. Yes, you may begin groaning now - the metaphor that she's cleaning up his life is just too literal and clunky. And indeed, the relationship that develops between the two becomes too structured and easily defined, when it was far more intriguing in its ambiguity. After several visits, Rhoda and John are obviously improving each other's lives in small, steady ways rather than with obvious gestures. "Another Earth" should have left it that way.
A pervasive feeling of the unknown is what provides the film with its gripping suspense. As Rhoda and John forge their unlikely bond, "Earth 2," continues hovering above our own, inching ever closer. It may contain alternate versions of all of us, ones that offer the promise of a second chance, and a scene in which a scientist makes this determination on live television is chilling.
Cahill achieves a mixture of thrills and dread with passing glimpses at this blue orb; that it looks low-tech and has no glossy sheen adds to its allure. The fact that the performances, too, are a little raw and rough around the edges is fitting. Marling and Mapother are so good together in their understated way, they make you wish "Another Earth" had trusted itself enough to leave more unspoken.