Film Critic’s Notebook: When an actor is also a friend

Film Critic

I’m coming out of the closet about Zoe Kazan, breaking a rule I’ve kept to my entire professional life. It was either that or stand by and watch a very small and quite special film struggle for life and likely wither and die in an unforgiving marketplace.

If you don’t know her name, Zoe Kazan is a young actress coming into her own. She played Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s mistress in “Revolutionary Road” and Meryl Streep’s character’s daughter in “It’s Complicated,” was featured in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s New York production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and is costarring on Broadway with Christopher Walken, Anthony Mackie and Sam Rockwell in Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane.”

Zoe Kazan: An essay in Sunday’s Calendar section about Zoe Kazan said the actress had appeared in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “The Seagull” on Broadway. The production was staged by the Royal Court Theatre. —

On Friday, her new film, Bradley Rust Gray’s “The Exploding Girl,” is opening at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. It won Zoe, 26, the best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival and landed her on the cover of Filmmaker magazine. It’s just the kind of quietly resonant film I’m passionate about and though I’ve made the decision to review it, under ordinary circumstances I would paradoxically steer clear of it entirely.

That’s because early on in my life as a critic I made a rule that I would not review films that involved people I know well. That’s admittedly an elastic category, but I don’t just know Zoe, I’ve known her and her gifted sister Maya, the daughters of old friends and writer-directors Nick Kazan and Robin Swicord, since they were born. I haven’t just seen all of Zoe’s film work and much of what she’s done on stage, if I had to I could comment knowledgeably on her key role in the Windward High School production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

While applying this rule is fairly straightforward when it comes to people such as writers and directors, whose presence permeates every frame of a production, it is trickier with actors, especially when they are getting started and only in small corners of a film. So it was possible for me to review “In the Valley of Elah” (negatively, as it turned out) without even mentioning that Zoe had a role in it.

But with “Exploding Girl,” that wouldn’t be possible. Not only is Zoe the star of the film, it was written with her in mind, and she is in pretty much every scene. Writing a review that didn’t focus on her performance wasn’t going to be an option.

Finally, though, what got me to break my rule was more than a desire to champion “The Exploding Girl.” It was the opportunity to deal with the often unexplored area of why some critics choose not to write about the people they know and how I started to feel that there might at times be reasons to do so.

I made the “no friends” rule for myself because through experience I’d come to believe that knowing someone affects how you write about their work. That’s because criticism is simultaneously objective and personal, an examination of your own particular feelings and insights that should be as untainted as possible by anything that is not on the screen. And anything that makes you lose that delicate balance is to be avoided.

While some critics feel personal relationships don’t affect what they write, that’s not been my experience. I’ve even found that meeting filmmakers in the course of writing stories from film festivals, though helpful in understanding creative decisions, can be problematic for reviewing. It’s not that you change your opinion of the film from black to white, it’s that friendship can make you take a little off your fastball, so to speak -- make it harder to be as blisteringly candid as you ought to be. That’s why, as an astute colleague of mine once said, when Hollywood wants to influence a critic, they don’t do it with gifts or money, they do it with access to talent.

When I’ve told friends who had films completed that I would not be reviewing them, they sometimes assured me that they could take whatever I dished out, but that is not the problem I worry about. I don’t stay away to protect them, I do it to protect myself from the torture of having to balance the critic’s compulsion toward honesty with the demands of friendship. And I stay away to keep faith with the audience.

For if I have a nightmare as a critic, it’s having someone come up to me and say, as has frequently happened, “I saw that film because you said it was good and I hated it. Did you really like it?” When that happens, I never want to be thinking, “Actually, I didn’t love it, but I know the filmmakers, and I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”

But with “The Exploding Girl,” the kind of small-scale effort that does not survive without critical support, there were bigger issues at stake. In fact, if it were not for the existence of new, micro-distribution companies such as Oscilloscope Laboratories, it might never have gotten to theaters at all.

Tiny but memorable, “The Exploding Girl” has a story line that could squeeze into a sentence -- college girl on spring break has quiet emotional crisis -- with plenty of words to spare. But as written and directed by Gray, it’s a finely made character study that confronts the mysteries of the everyday by focusing not on ostentatiously dramatic moments but on the low-key spaces in between.

Watching Zoe’s beautifully modulated work as the shy, quiet 20-year-old Ivy made me feel that knowing her was an advantage in this case because it gave me additional insight into how good a performance this is. Since what she does plays out with perfect naturalness, it would be tempting to hypothesize that, after all those other, busier movies, Zoe at last has the chance to be herself. Except that knowing her makes it unmistakable that this is nothing of the kind, that this is the kind of highly controlled, delicate work that is some of the hardest kind of acting to pull off.

Even though I’ve broken my rule for “The Exploding Girl,” it’s not clear what that means for the future. More than likely, I will go back to obeying the law -- it makes too much sense for too many reasons not to -- while reserving the option to go off the reservation if, as with this film, I think circumstances warrant a change.

Was I right to break my pattern and write about this small gem? You’ll have to see it for yourself to know for sure.