The Brit Marling School of Cinema is something every young filmmaker should take note of. A few years ago, Marling drove cross-country with her friends, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. Their destination, Los Angeles. Their dream, to make films. In 2011, after severing time amidst the Hollywood struggle, the trio premiered two separate movies at the Sundance Film Festival. Both films, Cahill’s Another Earth and Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, were small-scale, high-concept sci-fi tales that were financed independently and featured Marling in lead roles (she also co-wrote each film). Within a year, Batmanglij was developing his next film with Ridley Scott (which turned into The East), while Marling was stealing scenes from Richard Gere in Arbitrage (and, later, from Robert Redford in The Company You Keep).
I Origins is about a young scientist, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), whose fascination with eyes will, he hopes, definitively disprove the existence of God. If Ian can scientifically prove that every single pair of eyes is different, then he can assert that humans are the design of evolution, not of a higher power. Ian is so firm in his beliefs that he allows no debate in his life. He speaks with a cold, scientific vernacular and often carries himself with a wave of arrogance, shunning those who don’t agree with his findings.
Ian has two women in his life who challenge him in separate ways. Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is carefree, passionate and spiritual – the literal opposite of Ian. But after they meet by chance, Ian becomes infatuated with her. Opposites attract, sparks fly, and the argument of science vs. religion rages on between them. Karen (Brit Marling) is Ian’s dutiful lab assistant – dedicated to his research, but never extending their relationship beyond the lab.
Such is how I Origins begins. Truthfully, the film evolves into something far more interesting and profound, but to divulge further details here would be to ruin the movie’s unique intrigue. There are moments of unexpected pain in the film – of torment and violence and inner hell. Which are occasionally matched with transcendental sequences of joy (note: Radiohead typically makes everything better). And through both thick and thin, the film’s three leads carry the picture. There’s an effortlessness to Marling’s acting that is wholly authentic. She’s a born natural, unfazed by the lens, yet completely open to it. In one of the film’s best moments, Karen discovers Ian during a moment of great vulnerability. The way she handles the situation (hint: it’s a common one in movies) is unlike any way I’ve seen it handled before.
I’m unfamiliar with Bergès-Frisbey’s work outside of this film, but here, she gives Sofi an unpredictability that makes the character wildly compelling. Sofi is the showiest performance of the bunch, and Bergès-Frisbey truly nails it. I can’t wait to watch her career develop. Since his breakout turns in Murder by Numbers and The Dreamers, Michael Pitt has inhabited many memorable odd characters in small and important films. Ian is no exception, and his challenging character arc proves to be a perfect fit for Pitt’s skill.
With all this noted, it’s important to understand that Cahill doesn’t make easy films. In fact, the way he develops I Origins could incite detractors to label it as pretentious, dull and/or meandering. I enjoyed my time with it, but the film is far from perfect. For example, there’s a frenzied sequence involving the number 11 that, while amusing, is a little too clean and coincidental for its own good. The scene is brief, painfully random, and, as it turns out, ultimately futile (until, of course… it’s not). And that’s the kicker. Maybe this scene is included because it’s random. Maybe it’s included because it’s futile. How often do we do things in life that prove to be a waste of time? How many hours do we spend overthinking situations, or exhausting our energy on efforts that ultimately aren’t worth it? I’ve certainly done it plenty, and the bitch of it is, I never realize I’m wasting my time until I’ve already wasted far too much. Perhaps that’s Cahill’s point. Or perhaps I’m simply overthinking it. Exactly. B