A lonely heroine ordering Chinese food for one while pretending it’s for two is a romantic comedy standby. But in the early moments of Sparrows Dance, reclusive shut-in Marin Ireland performs this deception with such painstaking calculation that she brings the pathos back to the cliché. Ireland, who eventually reveals that she used to be an actress, spends the film’s near-wordless opening section going about her business in a small, quintuple-locked New York City apartment, avoiding the outside world. When her toilet breaks, she’s forced to make direct contact with another human, a chatty plumber played by Paul Sparks. The prospect wrecks her—when a neighbor bangs on her door to alert her to the plumbing problem, she hides under blankets, then makes a beeline for her firearm—until Sparks starts to win her over with his low-key friendliness. They can’t go out on dates, exactly, but she lets him in a second time, then a third.
Basically a two-hander, Sparrows Dance could be easily adapted for the stage, but writer-director Noah Buschel uses plenty of cinematic tools to fancy up his simple story. He emphasizes Ireland’s closed-off life by framing the movie in a boxy non-widescreen aspect ratio, with fixed-camera setups offering almost surveillance-like footage of Ireland ordering food, watching television, and working out on her exercise bike.
After these weirdly mesmerizing introductory sequences of Ireland alone, the addition of Sparks makes the film feel stilted, even mannered, at least at first. The presence of another person in Ireland’s apartment understandably throws off her solo rhythm; however intentional the effect may be, there are moments when Sparks’ voice (he speaks in a Gosling-ish half-mumble, far from the nasal pitch of his Mickey Doyle on Boardwalk Empire) and slightly awkward dialogue makes the movie seem as fumbling about the basics of human interaction as its lead character.
As the characters adjust to each other, though, Sparrows Dance turns warm and touching, aided by smart direction. In one clever trick shot, Buschel places Sparks in the frame with Ireland via a mirror, with his actual body off-camera. Later, a gorgeous long shot breaks the fourth wall, framing the apartment, briefly, as a soundstage, before the camera slowly pushes back into a more typical vantage point as Ireland and Sparks dance together. (This camera movement is all the more impressive for being possibly the only one in the entire film.)
There are times when the slight, small Sparrows Dance pushes too hard, both visually and narratively: a blinking red light outside Ireland’s window provides overly fussy on-off lighting during two long scenes, and the movie’s flairs of serious conflict are less deft than its offhand moments of connection. There are enough of said moments, though, to sustain its sweetly hesitant romance.