MOVIE REVIEW: The Other Half


2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection


For better or worse, Nickie and Emily, the two lovers orbiting at the center of "The Other Half," are two volatile human chemicals.  Welshman Tom Cullen's Nickie is a sorrowful, combative man with a hair-trigger temper.  Tatiana Maslany's Emily is a bipolar sprite with an astounding gap between her highs and her lows.  By themselves, each are unstable and damaged.  The question for the film becomes what happens when Nickie and Emily are combined.  Does their pairing tame their respective caustic qualities or does it multiply the damage?  "The Other Half" has the makings of a fascinating relationship piece and off-kilter love story.

We begin observing Nickie walking away from us with headphones tuned to Franz Schubert's "III Scherzo Presto - Trio: Aridante sostenuto."  We see memories of happier times with a wife and son.  Soon, the walking motion transitions a seedy nightclub and the pulsating house mix,  feeding different stimuli and more sinful visuals.  Nickie is trying to eek out an existence after an unseen tragedy, one that is reminded to him often by his worrisome mother in phone calls.  Serving tables at a cafe, he clashes with a customer only to have Emily intervene as a bystander and cool heads.  The two hit it off through friends and begin to share quality time together.  

Nickie tags along with side work Emily does at a school.  He clearly shows the capacity to be good with kids, only to have those reminder experiences trigger old pain.  As we learn more about Nickie, we also observe the bipolar and rebellious trappings of Emily.  She has a fervent artistic side as an aspiring painter, dancing around at night to her go-to vintage track, Wendy Rene's "After Laughter (Come Tears)," a coincidentally telling and symbolic choice.  Emily is constantly confronted and contained by her disapproving and well-off parents (Henry Czerny and Suzanne Clement) to figure out her tendencies and show an initiative of trajectory with her life.

"The Other Half" is a strong writing and directing debut from actor Joey Klein ("The Vow," "American Gangster").  Shot in Toronto over the course of just 16 days, the film carries peaks and valleys that match those of the two central lovers.  The film can sing soothingly with daytime courtship at one moment and then turn to dark confrontations and complications at night.  Much of that tone is cultivated from beautiful original music by Klein and star Tom Cullen.  The shades of character and writing depth from Klein convey the seven years Klein has fought to get this passion project made since being a screenplay finalist at the Sundance Lab in 2009.  An apt comparison for "The Other Half" would be the half of Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" that shows the romance before the troubles.  Challenging romances built with depression and loss are not for everyone, but demand appreciation for their courage.  

When together, Nickie and Emily are a mess, but they are a dedicated mess to each other.  They are as right for each other as they are wrong, in a wonderfully compelling and complicated romance.  Both have wildly competing emotions that neither partner can completely handle.  That said, Nickie and Emily have tremendous capacity, sympathy, and desire within their hearts for wanting to the rock of stability and love in each other's lives.  The power of devotion comes out in scintillating performances from Tom Cullen and Tatiana Maslany.

Cullen ("Downton Abbey") hides a soulful side underneath the outer layer magma that heats Nickie's mind and eyes.  His temper trait might be dialed a bit too high, but the lash outs are jarring in the right way for the character's limits.  What is strikingly raw, perfect, and not overdone is every quirk and nuance from Tatiana Maslany and her portrayal of Emily.  The "Orphan Black" star gives a emotionally wrought, fearless, and fierce performance of this complicated woman who can be a seraph and an enigma.  The swings between are believable and not over-expressive.  Cullen and Maslany are a couple in real-life and their prickly attraction is wholly palpable on-screen.  They are the reasons to experience this film.

LESSON #1: RELATIONSHIPS ARE ABOUT COMBINING FLAWS-- Nickie and Emily might have extreme personal issues, but their romance typifies how every stable relationship needs to built on chemistry and support equally.  Every person is imperfect and flawed in their own way.  No one is ever simple, meaning the shared relationships are not eithe.  The right partner for each person has the capacity to love and accepts those imperfections.  Any reservations become shared understandings.

LESSON #2: WHEN TWO PEOPLE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER AND WHEN ARE THEY NOT-- This last lesson repeats the question of the opening paragraph and draws out more.  Can this mix work?  Can their hearts handle the rigors and pains?  Are they destined to always be confined by their flaws and issues?  Are these two better together or apart?