“I’m a poultry expert, in the new Agriculture Department.” This is what passes for a pass, for aspiring animator Coles Burroughs (Mark Ruffalo), approaching a hot chick at a Sarah Lawrence party, circa 1993. Standing by the refrigerator in whoever’s apartment they’re in, he ducks his head and shuffles his feet, but he’s not so cute as he thinks. Sam (Maya Stange) looks him up and down and calls in reinforcements, namely, her roommate Thea (Kathleen Robertson). They flirt, the camera inspects their faces, they eat Popsicles and chat.
They agree to go back to his place, where they engage in (pose for) arty body-parts shots, blended with animation. These are Coles’ images, to be drawn later but imagined now, and the first hint that he tends to see the world—how do you say?—two-dimensionally. His view isn’t quite Sam’s, however, and it’s not long before she discovers that the three-way isn’t so pleasurable as she thought and she’s scrunched up on the bathroom floor, in tears.
The next day, despite this meltdown—or maybe because of it—Sam phones Coles. On her end of the conversation, Sam’s fidgety in the frame, she splutters and smiles; Thea sits coolly across the room, walkman on, nodding encouragement. She’s “sorry,” Sam says, for all the fuss, but she “had fun.” Coles is taken aback, but intrigued. What’s up with this girl, so stirring and nervy, so headstrong and vulnerable, so darn unpredictable? He “had fun” too, he says. And so they meet again, agreeing that they “don’t want to play any games.” It’s most important, they say, “to be honest with each other.”
This conversation is the faux foundation of xx/xy, Austin Chick’s first feature, which tracks this three-way relationship in two parts, the first leading to a nasty breakup, the next set “10 years later,” when, incredibly, all three meet by chance in NYC. No one here manages to be “honest with each other.”
The 1993 college-days part focuses on Coles testing limits of meanness and fidelity. In another movie, he’d also be interested in “finding” himself, but Chick’s film smartly rejects that familiar route. It’s unclear, though, if there’s another direction offered. Like many feckless boy protagonists, he acts like he has little to lose, the handheld camera reflecting his floppy sensibility. Also like his predecessors, Coles ostensibly rejects faithfulness, but might be longing for commitment. But if he doesn’t have a very original trajectory, Ruffalo is a resourceful performer who makes you wonder whether Coles is really so willfully insensitive and self-involved as he seems. He and Sam spend time in montages—playing with fireworks, kissing in hallways, doing drugs—mostly to show how lovely she is and to provide images that might come back to him, later, when he’s lost her.
When Coles is young and wearing knit caps, he sees a distinction between boys and girls: he can handle attachment-less sex, and girls like Sam can’t. He walks out, churlish, when she expects him to go to a rave with him rather than stay home like they might have planned. To get her back, he beds some other faceless girl while his phone rings: Sam calling to apologize. You know this is will be hurtful, but neither Sam nor Coles knows, yet.
Though this moment suggests that xx/xy offers multiple perspectives, in fact, it sticks pretty closely with Coles, as you don’t have access to Sam except in relation to him. In itself, this is a provocative notion, to ask viewers to ride along with a character who so resolutely resists self-understanding, let alone feeling responsibility for anyone else. His cruelty to Sam isn’t awful as much as it’s negligent; he doesn’t put energy into anything, not his relationships, his work, or his partying. Instead, he takes what comes his way, say, Thea.
On one level, Thea appears to be the exception to Coles’ concept of xx-ness: she’ll sleep with whoever, for instance, her haplessly adoring next roommate, Sid (Kel O’Neill), then drop him immediately (“Don’t cry,” she sighs, leaving him despondent). Thea’s stereotypical guy-ness throws Sam’s girly desires into some relief, but the differences here are, well, two-dimensional. Coles wants to feel like he can fuck Thea and walk away, but maybe he really does want to love Sam. Oh gee, he can’t decide.
The 2003 part, the young professionals part, is also about testing limits of meanness and fidelity, and again, the stakes for Coles remain unclear. He’s an independent filmmaker now working for a Manhattan advertising firm, drawing animated tacos and hating on his boss every chance he gets. He’s also living in a SoHo loft with exquisite Claire (Petra Wright). At first, she looks like she’ll be the girl who must be dumped, so he can re-find true love with Sam, but the film is less simple than that. For one thing, Claire is cool enough that she’ll special order a Clair Denis box set from Kim’s. For another, she’s riding it out with Coles, just as the film has asked you to do—and so, her pain and frustration starts to feel like yours.
Seeing Sam again make Coles excited; he doubts that what he feels for Claire is “real.” But he’s never had much truck with what’s “real,” and so it’s hard for him to tell. The newly reconfigured group decides to spend an evening together—Coles and Claire, the recently un-affianced Sam and a boy with whom she’s flinging, the recently settled Thea and her earnest restaurateur husband Miles (David Thornton). Suddenly, Sam looks to Coles like the girl he can cheat with, not on. And suddenly, he thinks he’s in love.
You know better. The trouble is that your knowledge doesn’t cost you anything. It’s easy to feel smarter than Coles. And it’s dreadful to feel smarter than the film, which tends to underline its points: a door closes in cringing slow motion, sad music on the soundtrack; that handheld camera circles round Coles as he tries, face falling, to join in a group conversation, after his own secret-but-obvious plan for a weekend with Sam has fallen through in a devastating way. Coles isn’t so much a boy as he is his idea of a boy. And the movie isn’t so much an investigation of that experience as it is an idea of one.