Editor’s Notes: Personal Space opens today at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.
At one point in Personal Space, Sid (James McDougall) talks into his camera phone about the unreality of most romantic films. He discusses grand overtures and happy endings like things borne out of fantasy more than reality. The film as a whole seems dedicated to debunking some of the myths of the romantic comedy by refracting them through the prism of mumblecore. The result is fitfully effective, more an amalgam of styles and ideas that a completely connected, fully realized story.
The film as a whole seems dedicated to debunking some of the myths of the romantic comedy by refracting them through the prism of mumblecore. The result is fitfully effective, more an amalgam of styles and ideas that a completely connected, fully realized story.
Sid is a recluse, who works from home and has trouble finding much of a reason to leave the house. His girlfriend Karri (Amelia Macisaac) feels trapped and controlled in their relationship, and as we learn in the film’s early moments, breaks up with him as a result. Sid retreats further inside himself after the breakup, only to decide he still loves Karri and needs to win her back.
Personal Space attempts to turn its micro-budget (the film was shot for less than $1,000) into an asset by keeping things handheld and allowing the actors to improvise rather than adhering to a strict script, but the result is formless and without any strong structure. If Sid was developed fully, this could be an in-depth character study, but his mumbled self-righteousness and delusions become increasingly grating over the course of the film. The mistakes Sid is making are obvious from the start, but we are presented with his flaws again and again, with no sense that he is actually learning from them, or even that he is supposed to be.
This artful plotlessness works in other mumblecore films because of the strength of the improvisers at their center. Throw Mark Duplass into a movie without a plot, and he will shape a character, a mood, and an arc out of only his words. That James McDougall lacks that capability is hardly an insult—it is to the film’s detriment that cameras were turned on and McDougall was asked to make something worthwhile without a safety net. He comes up with some nice moments, but they are adrift in a sea of rambling moments that shift from realism into painful padding after a certain point.
There are things Personal Space gets right. The problems Sid and Karri have are real, and her reactions to them feel completely genuine.
There are things Personal Space gets right. The problems Sid and Karri have are real, and her reactions to them feel completely genuine. That Sid is so unsympathetic and oblivious from the start is clearly part of the point, but because of the shapeless nature of the movie, it never becomes clear whether Sid is trying to change, and whether director Elli Raynai is hoping to make a larger point about apathy, about Sid’s choices, or about anything much at all. The film has an admirable approach to depicting sex as an awkward experience for Sid, and while some of its observations here are realistic, they mostly feel like retreads on points other movies have made better. It turns out, sometimes sex is awkward, and while Personal Space makes that point, it does so more by lifting tricks from other films than by finding a way to broach the subject itself.
Personal Space is an inconsequential entry into the mumblecore genre, an exercise that apes the formula and comes up, like the fabled efforts to recreate Coca-Cola, tasting wrong somehow. The film has awkward conversational rhythms that approximate everyday speech (or at least what passes for such in a mumblecore movie) and a general verite approach. What it lacks is any purpose behind that approach. The message becomes muddled to the point of indecipherability, and none of the characters are interesting enough to account for the emptiness at the movie’s center. Personal Space ends up feeling like a pale imitation of a genre the director doesn’t fully understand. What this movie needed was a personal touch.
[notification type=”star”]54/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Personal Space ends up feeling like a pale imitation of a genre the director doesn’t fully understand. What this movie needed was a personal touch.[/notification]