Those expecting action-movie pyrotechnics from Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl will be disappointed—the only loaded weapon in this indie is the title, at once a vulgar joke at the expense of its epilepsy-stricken heroine and an accurate assessment of her emotional arc.
Zoe Kazan stars as the titular girl, a college freshman named Ivy who travels home to Manhattan for spring break. It’s not exactly Girls Gone Wild: Ivy’s lifestyle, structured to avoid seizure triggers like stress and booze, is conservative for the average 18-year-old. In between doctor appointments, meals with her harried single mom, and awkward phone calls with her distant boyfriend, Ivy roams the city with Al (Mark Rendall), her goofy-cute best friend from high school. But Al goes out at night to get stoned, leaving Ivy to lie in bed alone, staring at her un-ringing phone.
Girl is narratively slight, but aesthetically and psychologically complex. At times, it feels more like an illustrated audio collage than a movie—dialogue is mixed at the same volume as traffic, and multitracked sounds of the city seem to substitute for Ivy’s internal monologue. Gray’s camera voyeuristically tracks his actors from afar—shooting from across streets or behind bushes or half-open doors, he catches fleeting glimpses as they weave in and out of real crowds and New York City locations.
With her hair pulled into sweaty double ponytails and makeup-free face dominated by baby-fat cheeks and bulbous peepers, Kazan nails the blinking awkwardness of a young woman who hasn’t yet learned to control her own beauty, for whom being looked at is akin to being exposed. Her big eyes are hardly windows to her soul—they’re more like two-way mirrors, through which she can peer out, critically, without letting anyone in. And while everyone around her babbles as if they’re in a mumblecore film (which Girl emphatically is not), Ivy never says more than she has to. Handed a rambling rejection, she spits out a single-word response: “Why?”
Avoiding allegorical clichés, Gray turns the frustrations of epilepsy—the dozens of small concerns that, in combination, strangle Ivy’s free will—into an effective metaphor for non-epileptic youthful paralysis, and the inevitable “explosion” into the culmination of all those growing pains. Though Gray’s camera is never as far away from Ivy as when she’s convulsing, her seizure opens the floodgates to a gush of emotion: The girl who fought so hard to keep herself contained suddenly can’t hold back.