The new intimacy in certain indie movies is a space-invasive hovering of the camera, a microscope that can never get close enough to its subject. If it could burrow into the skin, it would. It prefers darkness to light, silhouettes to dimension. In the wrong hands, this kind of style can ironically feel distancing, a choice steeped in artiness rather than a curiosity about the human condition.
But “The Other Half,” Canadian filmmaker Joey Klein’s impressive feature debut, is an example of its worth, a granular depiction of trauma, illness and protectiveness disguised as a love story and guided by a pair of intense portrayals.
It’s difficult, in fact, to fully grasp what’s troubling brooding Nickie (Tom Cullen, from “Weekend”), a twentysomething Englishman bumming around Toronto, only that this encompassing grief — tied to a tragedy years ago involving his younger brother — manifests itself in either gloominess or spontaneous anger.
Calls back home to his worried mom are polite and tight-lipped. He loses his restaurant job when he almost gets into a fight with a customer, although a supportive bystander (Tatiana Maslany) flirtatiously gives him her number, and Nickie manages a curious smile.
Her name is Emily, an outgoing teacher and budding artist, and after a cozy first date she and Nickie become fused, falling into an inwardly engaged exclusivity — childish jokes, play-acting, easy physicality, sincere vows — that suggests a retreat from the world. In her case, though, that means ignoring the prescription treatment she’s on for rapid cycling bipolar disorder, an especially manic form of the condition that she tries to explain away as “the jitters,” but — as Nickie increasingly becomes aware — threatens to upend their hermetically sealed happiness.
When an especially bad episode spurs Emily’s concerned father, Jacob (the reliably rock-solid Henry Czerny), to send her away for a year, Nickie’s own tenuous equilibrium, driven by his newfound sense of emotional responsibility, is tested.
“The Other Half” is the type of visual exercise that thrives on claustrophobia, forcing you into scrutinizing its leads’ faces for signs of harmony or danger. Partly that’s because, as shot by cinematographer Bobby Shore, it’s one of the more shadow-rich movies in recent memory, with the faintest of light sources illuminating the faces of Cullen and Maslany. But that need to scan Nickie and Emily’s emotional weather is Klein’s way of suggesting that love isn’t so much a pleasure destination as a mood drug in need of regulation.
What calms Nickie’s aggression is enveloping Emily in his protectiveness, but to Jacob, it’s an unrealistic intrusion that can only upset his daughter’s balance. A pivotal, tense scene in a swanky restaurant meant to introduce Nickie to Emily’s dad and stepmother (Suzanne Clement), but containing a secret agenda on Emily’s part, quickly morphs into a cross between a regressive parent-child confrontation and a parole hearing.
As it plays out, it’s only a hard road for these swept-up, damaged lovers, whom Klein and his actors treat with blessedly non-exploitative honesty. Cullen’s watchfulness has a panther-like quality, graceful yet edgy, and Maslany, an Emmy-winner for her full-throttle role on the clone opus television series “Orphan Black,” is commandingly raw as Emily. A gifted actress fully in tune with the movie’s immersive vibe, the Canadian-born Maslany is never anything less or more than completely human in conveying the roller coaster of Emily’s plight, the joy that comforts and warps.
The whole thing’s over before you realize she studiously avoided ever coming off like the manic pixie dream girl or disease-of-the-week figure of countless other movies. This won’t be a surprise to fans of “Orphan Black.” If “The Other Half” is any indication, Maslany should be a movie A-lister as well.
‘The Other Half’
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica