The title of Bradley Rust Gray’s film The Exploding Girl refers to “The Exploding Boy,” the B-side to The Cure’s “In Between Days” single. Gray co-wrote and co-produced 2006’s In Between Days, directed by his wife, So Yong Kim, and he’s called The Exploding Girl a sort of B-side to that movie, in that they’re both muted stories of lonely young women who contemplate embarking on a love affair with their best male friends. And like any good B-side, The Exploding Girl is engaging but rough, lacking the kind of polish that would make it a hit.
The title also refers to the main character, a student played by Zoe Kazan, who returns home to New York over spring break and sees her enthusiasm dim as she realizes that her college boyfriend is losing interest in her from across the country. Making matters worse, Kazan is an epileptic who has to manage her stress, lest she get overexcited and have a fit. She seeks comfort in the arms of her old friend Mark Rendall, but he’s a little too boyish and immature, and though they get along well, he clearly isn’t serious partner material. He’s more of an emergency boyfriend—though for Kazan, this may be an emergency.
There’s a fine line between naturalism and tedium, and The Exploding Girl approaches it too often. Gray fills the movie with long scenes of people walking around the city, not saying much, which would be okay if the few actual dialogue scenes weren’t so blandly functional. Kazan makes a few pointed calls to her monotone fella—who doesn’t disguise his dimming ardor—and she has conversations with Rendall that generally amount to him mentioning the girls he likes and staring purposefully at her to see whether she’s perturbed. In and around those more obvious moments, though, Kazan gets across the profound sense of embarrassment and caution her character feels about her condition, while Gray makes great use of New York locations, conveying the blooming romance of springtime without resorting to a bunch of shots of Central Park. There isn’t much to The Exploding Girl, but it’s blessedly compact, and owns its no-big-deal-ness.