Off Broadway actor Tom Noonan emerges as a talented writer and director in “What Happened Was,” an intriguing, often mysterious drama about a date between two lonely misfits. This intense chamber piece for two features strong performances, particularly by Karen Sillas. This appealing and disturbing movie, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival, holds some potential on the fest and specialized theatrical circuits.
There’s nothing in common between this movie for grown-ups and Hollywood’s teenage pix, except their central, universal situation: Dating as a culturally celebrated custom in American life. It’s Friday night and Jackie (Sillas), a secretary in a law firm, leaves work early to prepare for a dinner date at her New York loft with paralegal colleague Michael (Noonan).
The film’s first five minutes, which focus on Jackie’s nervous behavior and frequent dress changes, are superbly observed by Joe DeSalvo’s restless camera. Every viewer will be able to relate to Jackie’s contradictory feelings of tension, anticipation, excitement and fear.
It doesn’t help much that Jackie and Michael know each other from work, for when he arrives at the door, it’s a new ball game with a new set of rules.
Indeed, “What Happened Was” presents a most authentic chronicle of how people actually behave on a date: the discreet moves and countermoves, the fine line between image projection and negative exposure. It’s to Noonan’s credit as scripter and helmer that he captures in minute detail the uncomfortable feelings , awkward pauses and forced smiles.
Jumping from one topic to another, Michael tells Jackie that he went to Harvard Law School but didn’t graduate and that he has been engaged in writing an expose about the firm. Jackie is impressed, but then reveals that she has written children’s fairy tales.
Puzzled, Michael asks her to read one of them aloud, and the couple moves to her dressing room, a candlelit magical kingdom decorated with dolls and toys. Dealing with child abuse, violence and terror, her story disturbs Michael.
Contrasting behavior in public and private and the difference between appearances and identities, it turns out that most of the characters’ self-descriptions are inaccurate.
There are plenty of shocking role reversals and twists, but the script’s most illuminating insights show how well-intentioned and potentially pleasurable encounters can turn disastrous and humiliating as a result of differing expectations. Michael neither pretends to fully understand his persona nor tries to provide facile motivation for their conduct.
The beauty and originality of “What Happened Was” rests on defying the melodramatic conventions of Hollywood’s psychodramas.
Though based on a play, there’s nothing theatrical or claustrophobic about the narrative. “What Happened Was” becomes a thoroughly cinematic experience thanks to Noonan’s superlative mise en scene. Changes in time and physical space are transmitted with remarkable subtlety.
It’s rare nowadays to see two-character movies that depend entirely on dialogue and gestures. Some viewers might find the pacing too slow and the story too stagnant, as there’s almost no background music and no fast cuts between or within scenes.
Both Noonan and Sillas give startling performances as the bruised, isolated individuals. This film should establish Sillas, who has done splendid work for Hal Hartley (“Trust,””Simple Men”), as a dramatic actress of the first order.
Production values are first-rate, particularly Dan Ouelette’s remarkable production design of the loft — the film’s single locale — and DeSalvo’s nuanced camera movement and lighting.
Whether “What Happened Was” imparts an urban nightmare or the reality of alienation is up to each viewer to decide. But it’s significant that the film begins and ends with a view of huge, threatening buildings, in which each window might conceal a human mystery.