If “Hank and Asha” were any more purposefully winsome, it would curl up on your lap and indicate a desire to be petted. Even at a briskly paced 73 minutes, James E. Duff’s romantic indie feels slightly padded as it unfolds a thin scenario about two twentysomethings who initiate and sustain a long-distance relationship through video letters. Fortunately, the lead players are attractive and appealing enough to make them good company for the short haul. After fest dates, the pic will play best, if not exclusively, in home-screen venues.Working from a script he co-wrote with spouse and co-producer Julia Morrison, Duff establishes the rules of engagement early on. Asha (Mahira Kakkar), an Indian beauty attending film school in Prague, is deeply moved by a documentary — evidently, a nonfiction feature about ballroom dancing — she sees at a local fest. So she sends a video message to the pic’s director, Hank (Andrew Pastides), working as a PA for a New York reality TV show, and he responds in kind. A digital dialogue ensues. Call this the romantic dramedy equivalent of a found-footage horror pic, and you won’t be far off the mark. Gradually, the online exchanges evolve from friendly chats and tentative flirtations to something more soul-baringly intimate. Hank and Asha refrain from conversing directly by telephone, but their video messages become increasingly more polished and elaborate — they are, after all, filmmakers — and a few actually resemble musicvideos, replete with insistently peppy pop-tune soundtracks. But the best scenes in “Hank and Asha” — the ones that ring truest dramatically and emotionally — are ones in which the two leads do nothing more spectacular than simply address the camera and, by extension, each other. He talks of being guilt-tripped by his mother, who wants him to return home to North Carolina and help his dad run a failing family business. She talks about her own family responsibilities; there’s an arranged marriage waiting for her when she returns to India. But she doesn’t immediately reject Hank’s suggestion that they rendezvous in Paris. Duff and Morrison sporadically strike dim echoes of other pics (“Before Sunrise” and “Lost in Translation” are only the most obvious inspirations), and they aren’t always entirely convincing as they ask their audience to accept the notion that everything onscreen has been single-handedly recorded by either Hank or Asha. Even so, Kakkar and Pastides generate a rooting interest in their characters, with compellingly persuasive performances. And while the filmmakers don’t quite manage to avoid the predictable while wrapping up their story, they do introduce third-act attitude changes that, oddly enough, seem all the more believable for being so abrupt. Production values are fine across the board.
A Paper Chain Prods. production. Produced by James E. Duff, Julia Morrison. Co-producers, Kristie Lutz, Padmini Narumanchi, Anne Svejgaard Lund. Directed by James E. Duff. Screenplay, Duff, Julia Morrison.
Camera (color), Bianca Butti; editor, Morrison; music, Lara Meyerratken; music supervisor, Susan Dolan; production designers, Alexios Chrysikos, Mimi Violette; costume designer, Sara Jean Tosetti; sound, Matt Gundy; associate producers, Katie Maguire, Lucia Gimenez Viloria, Asmara Ghebremichael; assistant director, Padmini Narumanchi; casting, Elissa Myers, Paul Fouquet. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Jan. 18, 2013. (In Slamdance Film Festival.) Running time: 73 MIN.
Mahira Kakkar, Andrew Pastides.