This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Two people meet. Perhaps they are antagonistic to one another at first, or perhaps they click immediately. Both are at a crossroads, and they spend one magical night together, walking and talking, maybe kissing, but maybe not. Romance is in the air, but the connection goes deeper. Will these two people hook up, as the saying goes? Or is it destined to be just one night?
This plot synopsis could describe any number of movies. One thinks of Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945), with Judy Garland and Robert Walker, Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight (1991), with Lili Taylor and River Phoenix, or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The “one magical night” formula works really well if the characters are well-drawn and the romantic potential throbs. It gives actors and writers a chance to shine, because the distractions in such movies (ie: plot, explosions, aliens, car crashes) are minimal. If the chemistry between the two leads is strong, such movies appear (appear) to almost play themselves.
Brady Kiernan’s first feature, Stuck Between Stations, should work better than it does because the familiar elements are all here: two attractive complex characters (Casper, played by Sam Rosen, and Rebecca, played by Zoe Lister-Jones), an evocative nighttime landscape (Minneapolis, beautifully shot by Minneapolis native Bo Hakala), and an ongoing sense of romantic potential. But something essential is missing and Stuck Between Stations is derivative of other movies in the genre, rather than finding a resonance all its own.
Casper is a soldier in the U.S. Army, at home in Minneapolis on bereavement leave from Afghanistan in the wake of his father’s death. During an altercation with some thuggish guys at a bar, Casper meets Rebecca, or rather re-meets her: he was in love with her from afar in high school. Rebecca is now a graduate student who had an affair with her married advisor putting academic career in jeopardy (her advisor’s wife is the head of the department). On the sidewalk outside the bar, Casper and Rebecca re-introduce each other, and while they both are consumed with their life problems, seem to connect. Rebecca is edgy, not particularly friendly. Casper doesn’t seem to notice, he’s too gaga about his high school dream girl being right in front of him. An informal high school reunion is going on at someone’s house, and Casper asks Rebecca if she wants to go. She says sure, so off they go into the night.
Kiernan films a lot of the action with a split screen, following each character, and he uses it even during intimate scenes with, essentially, two closeups, seen side by side. It’s an interesting technique, and calls to mind the “Reality vs. Expectation” sequence in 500 Days of Summer, where the split screen is used to its fullest and most emotional potential. While in 500 Days of Summer the split screen showed the same character playing out two very different scenarios at the same time, in Stuck Between Stations, it is meant to highlight the differences between the two characters, their inherent separation – by time, lifestyle, politics (she is shocked he is a soldier, she’s never met one before, etc.). On some subterranean level, they may be connecting, but the split screen reminds us how far apart they are. The split screen tells us what we already know, and therein lies the problem.
Casper and Rebecca get along great, although she does say to him right off the bat they are only going to be friends. They smoke weed, they hang out at a 7/11 eating microwave burritos, they reminisce, they attend a midnight burlesque circus (a great sequence), they ride bikes with a crazy gang (led by their old classmate, Paddy, played by Josh Hartnett, a really enjoyable cameo), and have one of those endless nights involving multiple locations evoking the kind of energy present in restless 20-something people, adults, but not quite grown up yet. Casper has seen some awful things in Afghanistan, and is ambivalent enough about his father’s death he refuses to enter his childhood home and instead sleeps in a tent in the backyard. Rebecca’s love life is out of control, and her advisor (played in nice harried fashion by Michael Imperioli), whose wife is on the warpath, shows up occasionally to plead, beg, scold with her.
Minneapolis emerges as another character in the movie, and, like the recent Cold Weather, evokes a sense of the locale in a specific and beautiful way. Hakala does a superb job creating this feel and mood. Minneapolis looks romantic and uninhabited, a movie set on which the characters’ dreams and hopes are projected. The streets are wide and empty, the air is cold and dark, and at 3 a.m. the city becomes an underground playground for all of those who are still awake, still restless, still waiting for the night to happen.
Sam Rosen, as Casper, has a very available presence, and he doesn’t push. He’s not judgmental towards Rebecca’s current chaos, and even engineers a breakin into her advisor’s house to get her computer back. Zoe Lister-Jones as Rebecca is jaded, a little bit hard and guarded. Despite her put-together appearance and intellectual success, she is a big mess. It’s a refreshing change to the cliche, where a troubled man comes back to life again through his encounter with a life-loving adorable pixie who shows him the joys of spontaneity. At least we are spared this. Rebecca is allowed to be human, too.
Their dynamic is sweet, although their “Oh, whatever” attitude about so much in life dampens the sense that these two people need to be together. I don’t know if all of the “Whatevers” (I lost count) are written into the script, or if the actors added them on their own to make the dialogue sound more real, but either way, it’s damaging. Is someone going to stop saying, “Whatever” at some point and get to the heart of the matter?
Stuck Between Stations makes one appreciate just how difficult it is to make a movie like Dogfight, Before Sunrise or The Clock, and makes one marvel at the success of those films. It seems like it would be easy: place two characters in proximity to one another for a 24-hour period, watch them talk, laugh, meander, as we hope that maybe these two will kiss at some point, maybe they will break through to a deeper level. Or maybe they won’t. Whatever.