Having struggled with recent indie films such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Qwerty, andcoupled with my cool reception to Beasts of the Southern Wild, I have been sorely disappointed by the small-scale pictures of the year. Besides Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, it has only been larger Hollywood productions that have left much of an impression on me. Ruby Sparks curbs the trend. Upon first glance, it appears to have all the trappings of pictures like Little Miss Sunshine and (500) Days of Summer – and in many ways, it subscribes to a lot of the tropes found in those films. The sense of whimsy, the overt cuteness, and the quirk are all present to some extent. But what Ruby Sparks does better than the recent slew of indie romantic-dramadies is found in its probing psychological instincts. There are layers to the picture that initially come across as inconsequential but eventually merge into a crescendo of surprising emotional power.
Ruby Sparks’ premise has a particularly dark quality to it. Take a scene involving Calvin (Paul Dano) and his brother Harry (Chris Messina). Harry takes Calvin out on the deck to discuss the possibility that Ruby (Zoe Kazan) literally manifested from Calvin’s mind. The two dissect the situation, with Harry proposing that Calvin should write something new that would have immediate effect on Ruby’s demeanor. The way the scene is structured, the rhythm and dialogue, have a sense of precision. It’s a small scene that I suspect doesn’t immediately register with some viewers, but it’s one that serves to underscore the sharp filmmaking going on, but more importantly, the scene establishes the darker tone that the picture adopts moving forward.
While light and sunny for its opening scenes, the picture adheres to a sort of master/creator subtext with chilling force. Calvin’s recluse behavior and rejection of friends and family at first register as the same sort of behavior found in many sad-sack loner archetypes seen in many contemporary American indies. But Calvin’s creation is essentially expected to be emotionally fed by a man whose social anxieties prohibit growth. Ruby is therefore forced to highlight Calvin’s own shortcomings. Our creator’s response is not to learn, but to alter his creation. What’s crucial to these scenes is how Dayton and Faris (and cinematographer Matthew Libatique) frame the couple. Upon emotionally adjusting his creation, Calvin and Ruby are rarely seen out in the day, instead wandering the streets at night, avoiding prowling eyes and social interaction.
Scenes involving Calvin’s psychiatrist (Elliot Gould), his extrovert stepfather (Antonio Banderas), and a chance encounter with his ex-girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) all merge into the film’s most emotionally powerful scenes. Calvin’s self-denial and selfishness are highlighted in a way that would make most audiences cringe. It’s a scene that I’m impressed made the cut – it’s unabashedly cruel yet frighteningly poignant.
The picture has very little else to go after that scene, and what follows lacks the same sort of sure-fired trajectory. The emotional mess was laid out in such a way that it makes it hard to accept the conclusion as anything more than an attempt to tidy things up. If anything, it attempts to recall a picture like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The thing is, at its conclusion, the emotional playing field is to someone’s advantage in Ruby Sparks. I don’t think it is Kazan’s intent to perpetuate a cycle of emotional abuse, but then again, it might very well be what she’s aiming for. And with that, the complexion of that conclusion changes dramatically if you’re subscribing to such a wry worldview.