SFIFF – Another Earth
The Alfred P. Sloan Prize, given at Sundance each year, seems a bit arbitrary, although I’m sure the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who funds it, would argue otherwise. It’s a $20,000 cash prize given to a feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. There’s wiggle room in that definition, however. The prize in 2005 went to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. I don’t think too many people would argue Timothy Treadwell was any of those things. This year, Sundance recognized Mike Cahill’s sci-fi film Another Earth for the honor. Cahill cowrote the script with Brit Marling who starred as a smart girl, about to enter MIT when the decision to drink and drive changes everything forever.
The science-fiction aspect of Another Earth comes in the form of the discovery of a new planet in our very own solar system, which gets closer and closer as time goes by (although this sounds like Melancholia, there’s no danger of the planets colliding). It was a merely a blue speck when Rhoda Williams (Marling), a minor at the time she killed a woman and young child the night of her accident, but appears larger than our own moon when she’s released from prison, now as an adult. What’s more, the new planet, called Earth 2 appears to be identical to our own, down to continental shapes, city and population locations, etc., etc.
Rhoda changed considerably in prison. Now she’s introverted, even agoraphobic, taking a solitary job cleaning her old high school. She’s not able to forgive herself. There was a third passenger in the car Rhoda hit, John (William Mapother), the husband and father, who lived. He was a composer, a music professor at Yale University, but seems to have given all that up since his family’s passing. Rhoda visits the man one evening to apologize, but loses the courage to do so. Instead, she pretends she’s peddling a weekly maid service, which he purchases.
Through these weekly visits, an fragile relationship starts taking form. Rhoda never comes any closer to forgiving herself. Much of the film gives way to introspective moments for both of these main characters, but especially for Rhoda, inviting an internal discussion about mistakes and their sometimes severe and enduring consequences. None of this is new in film, none of it original. But the way it’s all framed in Another Earth is beautiful. This examination of a familiar and tragic dynamic somehow is newly illustrated when backdropped by the dramatic events happening in the sky.
Never knowing Rhoda’s past, as her identity as a minor was sealed, John lets her cleaning, and her company, bring him out of what seems like a four year funk. While never really allowing herself to be happy, Rhoda takes pleasure in helping John. But when she wins a trip to Earth 2 to, perhaps, meet herself, their relationship becomes much more complicated.
While the film’s budget was miniscul, and there are times that grainy footage won’t let you forget that the whole thing is shot digitally, it’s a well polished film. It features outstanding sound work and a beautiful original score from the band Fall On Your Sword. The sound is certainly one of the film’s best features, if not the best. Marling turns in a powerful performance that shows great promise for her acting career (she had another film at Sundance this year called Sound of My Voice). There are troubled spots that don’t allow the film to extend itself to cover the intended level of gravitas. These moments (admittedly they are few and far between) inevitably ground us back in reality. Fortunately, it’s easy to get wrapped up in it again.
In addition to the Sloan Prize, Another Earth also won a Special Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition and has been picked up by Fox Searchlight for international distribution.