"You can make her do anything you want… For men everywhere tell me you're not going to let that go to waste."
It's a chilling turn of phrase that Chris Messina's character Henry utters when he meets the woman that his brother Calvin wrote into being. Calvin played by Paul Dano is a frustrated writer but more than that a writer who published to great acclaim at a young age who has yet to do anything since. He begins writing a character named Ruby Sparks and as he falls in love with his creation he can't stop writing. It's exhilarating and addictive. Played by Dano's real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan Ruby Sparks is a one-dimensional male fantasy a cutesy young woman on roller skates… until she appears in his kitchen one morning. Calvin quickly learns that even though he can control her with a few taps on his typewriter Ruby has an ever-changing will of her own.
Ruby Sparks is written by Kazan with the sort of bite that a trailer can't be tied up with a neat little bow. There is gorgeous California sunshine an airy house in a hip part of Los Angeles the trendy Figaro café where Calvin finds out that other people can see Ruby and a delightful interlude with Calvin's hippie mother and stepfather played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. As gorgeous and gleeful and wide-eyed as Ruby is and as much as Calvin adores her the relationship develops and changes even as he succumbs to the temptation to rewrite her. Calvin an essentially insecure man unravels and becomes more and more of a controlling jerk until he's faced with the truth of how far he's willing to go to keep Ruby from leaving him. It becomes sad and frankly disturbing with an admirably raw performance by Kazan that lingers.
While Ruby Sparks serves as an interesting commentary on wish fulfillment in fiction writing its juicy subtext is far more important. Under the surface the film delves into how we're culpable for the way we see our lovers and how we want to change them or make them something they're not. Eventually Calvin has to decide whether or not he wants to continue editing Ruby to fit his specifications; he has to face that that means about him as a person and as a man. It's Pygmalion with a feminist twist. We see plenty of dumb romantic comedies about women tricking men into changing but it seems like there's an endless parade of indie films written by men about loveably girly women whose only reason for being is to act as a catalyst for the man's emotional growth. While this is absolutely true in some ways for Ruby and Calvin there's a meat to the script and Kazan's performance that makes "Ruby" rise to the top. There are plenty of words (or that overused phrase) we can use to describe Ruby but in the end Calvin wrote those traits into her and these are details that Ruby shucks off as she grows. Similarly as women grow up we learn we can (and have to) stop performing tricks to become the person our significant other wants or sees in us.
Without revealing too much the end of Ruby Sparks could be read a number of ways. On one hand it is a bit of a misstep that undermines the general thrust of the story but it could also be seen as simply a happier more hopeful ending. Romantics will find it satisfying but those hoping for Ruby's full emancipation might find it lacking.
This is the first film for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since 2006's Little Miss Sunshine and although they have much in common — including Dano — Ruby is a darker unrulier movie. The idea of movie-goers being led in to see Ruby because of Faris and Dayton's names or because of the trailer is delightful because they're going to get a little bit of a different experience than they're prepared for.
[Full disclosure: I interviewed Zoe Kazan for a profile in the August/September issue of BUST magazine.]
Set in 1818 something evil is going on in the Bell’s family house. The trouble begins after a land deal John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his neighbor Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) are involved in goes awry. She blames John for her misfortunes and curses his whole family. Townsfolk think Batts practices witchcraft and when it turns out she has kept pieces of their clothing suspicion rises even more. A religious leader (Matthew Marsh) and the local schoolteacher (James D'Arcy) set out to figure out the truth but have very different ideas about what is causing the nightmares and possession of young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood). But when Betsy's nightmares get more intense and violent--when Bible pages fly out of the book and Betsy gets dragged hair-first up the stairs in front of them all--the family matriarch Lucy (Sissy Spacek) sternly asks "Now are we all just having nightmares Professor?" Veteran talents Sutherland and Spacek have some of the scariest movies ever on their resumes. Sutherland was plenty creepy in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake while Spacek got her first Oscar nomination as Carrie. Even if there isn't much to say these two easily convey a lot of emotion fear and empathy with just a side glance or a raised eyebrow. The movie however wouldn't work without a beautiful innocent girl. Hurd-Wood is as magical in this gritty role as she was as Wendy Darling in the recent live-action Peter Pan. Her looks of horror and violation seem as real as if they were actually happening. The few people who saw the Exorcist prequel may recognize D'Arcy as the priest in it and his role is just as aloof and emotionless. He's a fine British actor and accomplishes a decent Southern accent but he comes across like a Brit who is stuck in a Southern town and frankly he is. Writer/director Courtney Solomon certainly knows how to weave a nice yarn. He's taken an old legend that was apparently witnessed by Andrew Jackson (before he became president) and tells it as if he was sitting around a campfire and spinning a great spooky story. A previous version of the film made it through the festival circuits about a year ago but had a very different ending. It’s the version playing in England right now actually. But with the American release Solomon took some advice and made some adjustments. Framed within a modern-day family living in the Bell house which flashes back to the period story its a gothic ghost story that doesn't jump out at you but instead seeps into your bones and chills you from within. And there’s nothing gross or offensive about it.