The Slow Simmer of The Exploding Girl

The Exploding Girl (Oscilloscope)

Bradley Rust Gray’s film of a young college student (Zoe Kazan) home for the summer is a portrait in interlude. We don’t see Ivy’s life at school—the film is bracketed by the journeys to her New York home and her return trip to college—but this is clearly a break from routine. Suddenly back home, she’s not always sure what to do with her time. She wanders the streets, revisits old haunts, teaches kids in her mother’s dance studio, but succession of scenes suggests an aimlessness of experiences to pass the days. When her old buddy Al (Mark Rendall) crashes at their place (his mom sublet his room), it’s actually more comforting than being back with Mom, who is pretty much absent with her classes and recitals anyway. Ivy doesn’t even pick up on his puppyish crush on her. She’s too thrilled with her college romance, even if her boyfriend is now just a disembodied, mumbling voice on a cell phone, barely speaking even when he does call her back.

The Exploding Girl and her adoring best friend

Gray shoots it all as a long respite, the days dissolving together into relaxed conversations among friends, quiet respites of self-reflection, a short slide into debilitating depression and a few lovely moments of everyday beauty. The dialogue is an inarticulate naturalism of young adults not ready to express themselves, and Ivy and Al are the least declarative characters you’ll see in a film all year. And Gray perfectly captures the oddly dislocated feeling of returning home to discover the old environment no longer familiar and comforting. A long-distance break-up (which he hems and haws around over the phone, of course) doesn’t help things and the uncertainty and depression reverberates through her tricky health issues. She has epilepsy, a condition that doesn’t define her as a person—it’s just another aspect of her life—but does affect her choices.

The title, which sounds overly combustible for such an even-tempered film, is a reference to the epileptic fits she’s learning to keep at bay through diet and self-awareness. When one does come on, Gray tries to let us into her experience as a droning whine builds, an alarm that tells her she’s about to lose the fight with her body, and rather tenderly gives her a little privacy for the actual physical attack. The gesture seems less for us than for her, this fragile creature who looks like she could break under this kind of physical stress. And Kazan (the granddaughter of Elia) does looks fragile, almost ethereal, and even on the bustling streets of New York City appears like she’s protecting herself in a bubble, alone and apart in the crowds.

If Kazan’s Ivy doesn’t really emerge as a fully formed character, it’s partly because she’s so guarded and verbally inexpressive and partly out the film’s design of inaction. But that unformed quality has an authenticity of character of its own: a young college woman in transition who seem to suddenly put herself on hold during the summer break. And Kazan is as open with her emotional reactions as she is guarded about her feelings. It’s not a story as much as impressionistic slices of a summer of growing pains, the very definition of a small film: modest in scope and rich in texture.

The DVD features an interesting interview with writer/director Bradley Rust Gray and actress Zoe Kazan conducted on the streets of New York City, Gray’s 1997 short “Gray” and a music video.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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