Sometimes a carefully placed pinprick can stay with you longer than a heavier, clumsier blow, and so it is with Bradley Rust Gray's delicately done but indelible "The Exploding Girl."
This 80-minute feature is on one level the tiniest story imaginable, a look at a quiet emotional crisis a 20-year-old college student named Ivy goes through on spring break.
But writer-director Gray is so committed to his minimalist aesthetic and applies it with such craft and skill that this careful character study, so exact in its aims and execution, holds our interest almost without our noticing how it's done. It confronts the mysteries of the everyday by focusing not on life's most dramatic moments but on the low-key spaces in between.
A good deal of the credit for the success of this approach has to go to Zoe Kazan, the actress who plays Ivy, who has done wonderful things with this, her first starring role.
Up to now, Kazan has had the kinds of supporting parts available to young actresses, playing Meryl Streep's character's daughter in "It's Complicated" and Leonardo DiCaprio's character's mistress in "Revolutionary Road." But filmmaker Gray, who often collaborates with his wife, So Yong Kim (he produced her film "In Between Days," and they share an editing credit here), wrote this with Kazan in mind, which means that she is in just about every scene.
Ivy is introduced dozing off during one of the classic rituals of college life, sharing a vacation ride home, in this case to New York. Kazan's face compels us even in repose, and it continues to do so once she is awake, her large questioning eyes and overall naturalness drawing us in and allowing us to sense her thoughts even in scenes in which she says little.
Also in the car with Ivy is the awkward Al (an excellent, empathetic Mark Rendall), a neighborhood friend since eighth grade. Once they arrive back home, circumstances put Al on the living room sofa in the apartment Ivy shares with her divorced mother (Maryann Urbano).
Though pals, Ivy and Al have never been a couple, and back on campus Ivy is involved with a young man named Greg, who is not seen but rather heard on a series of phone calls to Ivy over the course of the vacation.
The film's title may seem odd given Ivy's subdued nature, but it's because she has epilepsy and is subject to stress-related seizures. This condition helps give Ivy a kind of fragility, a sense that she's easily bruised and even a little lost in her own life.
Because "The Exploding Girl" focuses on the tentativeness of relationships at this particular stage of life, the simultaneous tiptoeing both toward and away from attraction, it may sound like it fits into that contemporary relationship genre known as mumblecore, but it's much more polished than that.
For while that style of filmmaking makes a virtue out of being haphazard, "The Exploding Girl" benefits from the rigor and precision of Gray's writing and directing. Small scale though it is, this is a film that knows what it wants to do and has thought out exactly how to go about doing it.
The same must be said about the luminous nature of Kazan's performance, which won best actress last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Because so little happens in terms of action, Kazan has to hold us with nothing more than the emotions that play with subdued personal force on her face. Though her work here may seem like a performer being herself, it's actually a highly controlled example of some of the hardest acting to achieve.