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by Jay Seaver

"Love is a strange creature indeed."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 BOSTON HORROR SHOW: Every once in a while, a movie will be built in such a way to make you forget what sort of film you came in expecting to see, usually so that it can get a jolt out of genre fans who come in ready for anything. "Spring" does that, to a certain extent, but takes it a bit further - its switch-up seems less about softening a tough audience up than easing it into something that sounds crazy, even if it winds up being fantastic.

So we start with Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) in California; he dropped out of college to look after his dying mother, and now that she has passed, he's got no reason not to hate the loose end he's at. It leads to a fight, which leads him to leave town for Italy, where he hooks up with a couple of British tourists, winds up in Bari, a small town on the coast. That's where he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a grad student researching the genetic irregularities of a relatively isolated population. She's beautiful, smart, and funny - but there's something else that makes her unlike any girl Evan has ever met.

It's a while before we meet Louise, but that's okay, because a real effort is put into making sure that we get to know Evan despite his seeming like just a simple American everyman to contrast with the Italian girl with the big secret. There's obligation but also deep love on display during the one scene with his mother, and a chip on his shoulder soon after that, but the approach matters: He hits back hard when he feels the jolt but is an easygoing softie when just pushed at. Lou Taylor Pucci is seldom pushed to make Evan extraordinary in any specific facet, but he makes sure that the audience likes the guy, making him approachable in his imperfections and having it balance out into a man worth spending time with.

That impression of Evan is given by watching him interact with friends old and new, and it's not just because of how well Pucci portrays the character that this meandering path to Bari and Louise doesn't have any but the most impatient people in the audience wanting directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead to get onto the freaky stuff. Benson - who wrote the script - has a knack for making those scenes of getting there fun, building scenes full of zippy back-and-forth banter that lets Evan play the straight man without sidelining him. Benson & Moorhead are so good at working a couple people off each other - something that only increases when Louise appears - that the reminders that there's something else going on here can be almost unwelcome. We're enjoying the road trip, then the romance, so we don't need the reminders that the movie will, eventually, become something else again.

But adding Louise is a game-changer, in more ways than one. First, it's because Nadia Hilker is great, playing Louise as a sharp and worldly contrast to Pucci's overwhelmed and unformed Evan; they're a great couple no matter what is going on around them. She's legitimately funny, both in terms of her basic personality and the way Hilker is able to really nail someone for whom the extraordinary has become commonplace. There's a stubbornness and a sadness to her at other times, and Hilker and the directors are able to do something pretty incredible in using little more than this characters words to both establish a grand story and shrink it to this one special woman's story.

There are some gross bits to her story, too - maybe not as many as those seeing Spring billed as a horror movie and hoping its Italian setting means giallo-level bloodshed, but eyebrows will be raised at points with some impressive practical creature effects (the CGI in a couple scenes could use a little work, though). Where Benson writes, Moorhead both handles some of the visual effects and shoots the movie, and he makes the most of the beautiful backdrop he has in Bari and the Italian countryside - as with Benson's script, his imagery puts great beauty, history, and grandeur on display but never lets it overwhelm Evan and Louise.

Between all these collaborators' work, what the last act of the movie is can sneak up on the audience; it becomes a walk-and-talk romance akin to what Richard Linklater did in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, only the topics of conversation are often quietly fantastical. Part of the fun is that, while the distributor calls Spring a supernatural romance, Louise would hate that, as she abjectly refuses to believe in the supernatural despite what must seem like a mountain of evidence. Benson & Moorhead pull off a really neat trick as the grand but personal stakes of what has been happening quietly reveal themselves - what could be set up as her scientific rationalism needing to be pushed away by the "magic" of love winds up going another direction, and it all works because of how well they established Evan to start things off.

That's exceptional. Because of the way it's exceptional, "Spring" is probably lucky to be a post-video-store movie - it would have best fit on the "Romance" shelf, except even the most gothic didn't have its monsters, and its embrace of understanding how all this works sets it apart from the magic-realist tales it can otherwise resemble. That's why it has to come at its story from seemingly unrelated angles, even though it all fits together incredibly well in the end.

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originally posted: 02/01/15 08:43:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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  20-Mar-2015 (NR)
  DVD: 02-Jun-2015



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