A couple moodily stare at each other across a rumpled apartment. He’s a skinny, wispy-bearded writer. She’s ghost-pale, clad in a Breton top and has bangs you can set your watch by. Yup, Between Us is definitely an indie film.
Primarily concerned with the difficult transition from freewheelin’ bohemian twenties to stable, child-having, marrying thirties, writer/director Rafael Palacio Illingworth serves up a slice of life broadly recognizable to… well, let’s be blunt here, the kind of people who watch low-budget indie relationship dramas.
Our unhappy couple is Henry and Dianne (Ben Feldman and Olivia Thirlby). They’re stood right on the border of maturity, yet currently wrapped up in a quasi-poverty daydream lifestyle. As they view a minimalist, sensible apartment out in suburbia, Henry’s paranoias surface in a premonition of his cherished no-consequences bohemian lifestyle vanishing in a puff of IKEA furniture and the distant echo of baby rattles.
Meanwhile, Dianne, despite being similarly wrapped up in her a cooler-than-cool arty image, has her eyes more firmly fixed on the future. Despite her protestations (“I’m a communist! I love Marx!”), you can tell she’s secretly nursing a desire for permanence and a stable future. The situation soon boils over and, after a particularly vicious tiff, the two head out into the night. He spends the night (and early morning) with a pixie-cutted experimental musician (Analeigh Tipton), while she finds solace in the burly, heavily tattooed arms of a bearded performance artist (Adam Goldberg).
There’s a streak of reality running right through Between Us, largely conveyed through Feldman and Thirlby’s nicely pitched double act. Feldman is particularly brilliant at communicating via momentary micro-reactions: the way Henry nervously glances away as Dianne picks out a wedding ring says more about his state of mind than pages of dialogue would.
But that’s not to say that Thirlby is any slouch. Dianne is quickly and efficiently fleshed out as someone who can’t quite bring herself to admit what she wants from life. We watch her quietly comparing Henry to other men, finding him lacking in maturity, financial security, and ambition. Their gradual separation is tectonically inexorable – written in stone from the moment Henry uhmms and ahhs his way through the first act.
When Between Us is firmly zeroed in on its protagonists it works gangbusters. The way they argue is painfully well-observed: low-level bickering building until one person says something genuinely cutting. Cue the waterworks. We’ve all been there, and Illingworth’s dab hand with dialogue captures that awkward cocktail of regret, anger and disgust that comes when lovers hurt one another.
But when the focus shifts away from the core relationship the quality dips a little bit. Each of the potential paramours is pretty thinly sketched. Analeigh Tipton’s Veronica feels more like male wish fulfillment than a realistic woman, eager to text pictures of her pussy and happily exclaiming “I could suck your dick right now!”. Meanwhile, Dianne’s flirtation with a pushy dotcom millionaire has a faint tinge of Fifty Shades of Grey to it, though her later hook up with Adam Goldberg is at least bolstered by his layered performance.
On top of that, there are a couple of needless symbolic bookends to the movie showing a CGI cloud manifesting in the couple’s apartment. It feels like something left over from an earlier draft that Illingworth was too in love with to cut – but in the final product, it’s an unnecessary layer of abstraction that distracts from the simple reality of the plot.
Also, there’s a couple of scenes that don’t quite work – an extended shot where Henry and Dianne dance around chanting “husband and wife!” to each other while ominous electronic music plays is a bit of a headscratcher, not to mention an extended look at a concept art play about men becoming robots (or possibly robots becoming men, it’s difficult to tell).
But for the most part, Between Us has its head screwed on straight, even poking fun at its indie stylings when someone critiques Henry’s indie film by saying it’s got “small little music, small cast and small locations.” Between Us is guilty on all those counts, but it’s got truth on its side, and truth goes a long way.
Though it runs into a couple of bumps along the way, Between Us is a well observed and sensitive indie drama that'll be familiar to anyone struggling with the onset of maturity.