A rigorous two-hander, Noah Buschel’s latest tale of margin-dwellers (after “The Missing Person” and “Neal Cassaday”) couples an agoraphobic ex-actress who hasn’t left her apartment for months with the socially awkward plumber/saxophonist she reluctantly lets in when her toilet overflows. Centered by Marin Ireland’s thoroughly convincing perf as the housebound young woman, “Sparrows Dance” conveys limitations without claustrophobia, as lenser Ryan Samul, shooting in a boxy 4:3 ratio, navigates an intensely personal space that never feels theatrical. With solid critical support, this inventively minimalist indie, winner of a narrative feature prize at Austin, could carve out a narrow theatrical niche.
The film’s first 15 minutes belong to Ireland as her never-named character maps out the topography of her small Manhattan apartment, establishing her solo routine. She takes a bath, stares at the computer while pensively smoking, watches movies on TV, rides her stationary bike, orders food and leaves money outside for the delivery man, pretending to be too busy to answer the door. A physical tic — a repeated thrusting out of her chin — underscores the involuntary nature of much of her behavior, while her cigarette puffing highlights the nervous energy she expends on maintaining a facade of normal human interaction.
When her overflowing toilet floods the downstairs apartment, causing her neighbor to pound on the door furiously, she is forced to deal directly with another human being. That would be Wes (Paul Starks), plumber by day, saxophonist by night. The woman incongruously dons a suit and high heels for the occasion, obviously ill at ease, though a shared appreciation of jazz begins to bridge the yawning conversational chasm. When Wes mistakes her refusal to go out with him as personal rejection, she invites him over for dinner.
Sparks’ oddball, self-deprecatory charm and Ireland’s uncertainties play off each other nicely as their eclectic tastes mesh; both characters are thrilled at finding someone who accepts and even welcomes the other’s peculiarities.
Helmer Buschel marks the beginning of his leads’ romance by demystifying film space in striking fashion. After dinner, Wes asks the woman to dance. The action then cuts to a long shot of a large, dark soundstage, empty except for the brightly lit apartment set in the far background with the two protags dancing. The camera slowly dollies in until the apartment again fills the frame, and still further into a two-shot of the dancers as they kiss, re-engaging the fiction.
Buschel and lenser Samul go for increasingly abstract effects as Wes and the woman’s relationship deepens: A blinking neon sign, somewhat visible in previous night scenes, now insistently floods the bed with red as the lovers share pillow talk, the color wash somehow cloaking their naked vulnerability.