“You can’t let someone else’s genius scare you off your own genius”
It only seems appropriate that I reviewed a romantic comedy yesterday where I posited its derivativeness to be a direct result of the genre simply having been exhausted beyond originality. Who knew a film like Noah Buschel’s Sparrows Dance would surprise me today by proving this thought wrong? Perhaps it isn’t the genre that has become stale, but instead the audience flocking to theatres for the same hamfisted love conquers all story repackaged ad infinitum by Hollywood. Luckily there still are some artists willing to strip things down, remove excessive side characters only included for a laugh, and find a way to turn the serendipitous act of meeting someone you can’t stop thinking about into an authentic release of one’s myriad insecurities rather than an overplayed series of First World hang-ups and twee woe-is-me clichés.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. A love story with a former actress turned recluse so debilitated by fear that she hasn’t left her apartment in a year and a loquaciously good-natured plumber moonlighting as a jazz saxophonist? Talk about cute and quirky overload. Thanks to memorable performances from Marin Ireland and Paul Sparks respectively, however, love is truly in the air with the normal trepidation of romance escalating exponentially through their very distinct character traits. With the opening fifteen minutes devoted entirely to Ireland’s daily processes and inability to pay deliverymen for food without leaving money outside on the floor while pretending to be in conversation behind her door, it’s an overflowing toilet providing a problem she can’t fix over the phone that finally forces her to find the strength for human interaction.
With a dry heave, choking tick giving her fear a visceral form in the moments where her heart hopes to overcome it, Ireland is quite literally trapped inside a self-made prison devoid of escape. She rides her stationary bike, watches overly melodramatic television, peers outside her window onto the street below, and repeats. She’ll call the police when a teenage male tries to rob a woman and even audibly scream in frustration at the bystanders letting it happen, but her wounded psychology always prevails to keep her shrouded in the darkness of her room once the courage to grab a robe and go downstairs to help disintegrates at the elevator. Hers is the type of character that walks a very thin tightrope between sympathetic and caricature and Ireland proves an expert funambulist.
We understand her plight and empathize with the sensory overload preventing her from truly living—pity never rears its head. She does attempt to break free, giving her very best before the cultivated pressures she has grown so accustomed to win out. Things have gotten so bad that Sparks’ Wes arrives to find her dressed in a pantsuit and all done up for a business meeting with the sole purpose of making him think she has to leave and thus must work quickly to facilitate. She never counted on his plumber’s humor, charm, or compassion in treating her like a human being despite obviously knowing she was more than a bit eccentric. Not one to be considered “normal” either, however, his awkward kindness finds a way to infiltrate her defenses and even earn a date.
Credit to Buschel and his team because all of this world/character building occurs in one room with two actors in the first thirty minutes. It’s only after the dinner date is set—at her place, of course—that a brief opening credits sequence arrives to show Ireland dolling herself up to Nathaniel Mayer and The Fabulous Twilights’ rocking “Village of Love”. It’s an amazing breath of fresh air that releases the mounting tension created from watching her helplessness; a sign of life after an otherwise hermetically sealed pool of emotion trapped behind scared eyes. And if that’s not enough of a jolt of pure joy, the dinner progresses towards a frivolous bit of dancing against The Volumes’ “I Love You” with the camera pulled back far enough to see beyond the apartment set.
It’s a daring maneuver that should have shattered my attention from the authenticity I just bought into, but somehow it only increased my appreciation. Maybe the blatant look behind the curtain at its artifice of faux lighting and manufactured environment allowed my mind to acknowledge how great Ireland and Sparks are in the roles. Rather than solely seeing troubled, fictional adults traversing love’s unknown journey, I also caught two actors making brilliant choices in their full and complete embodiments of them. I began to see their burgeoning union through personal tales of former love, past lives, and hopes and aspirations like a stunning bearing of souls on a stage set only for me—the gentle strobe of exterior red neon and absolute darkness shrouding their faces adding an intimacy to their courtship beyond film’s insular detachment.
Sparrows Dance unfolds like a play with its emotion projected through cadence, carefully written words, and an excitingly raw series of expressive body language. Any romantic moment that would most times make you cringe in its tonally out-of-place addition to a work more intent on entertainment than recreating life’s mysteries play as heartwarming, endearing, and true. A lingering embrace by Sparks when Ireland is at her lowest; his contagious smile willing her to trust him when all she can feel is the world crushing her chest; and her brief, complete transformation after their first date that makes it appear like she has and always will be a free woman with the power to go wherever she pleases—they only draw you in deeper.
We are made the prying eyes of eagles that must be poked out for these sparrows to dance—looking in and judging with each passing second. But just as we provide the torture for strangers when we become predators in whispered conversations that use them as our unsuspecting prey, our eyes are just as powerful on the flipside to protect the ones we’d do anything for. Where Wes began as an enemy to fear at her door, his acceptance of her allowed him into her remote little island while forcing the rest of us out even further. And as long as he holds her gaze and she his, nothing should ever matter again.
SPARROWS DANCE distributed by Tribeca Film.