Big Brother is always watching, this much we know — but what if he’s also a stand-up guy who really cares about you? That, somewhat dubiously, is the premise of “Eye on Juliet,” a long-distance love story that will surely remain the only film in history to remind viewers at points of both “Eye in the Sky” and “An Affair to Remember.” Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen’s fanciful tale of a Detroit drone operator losing his heart to a North African surveillance subject is naive by design, as it imagines a future utopia where both physical and cultural distances can be bridged through empathy, with a heavy assist from technology. Yet this well-meaning film winds up seeming more than a little obtuse in its flat avoidance of geopolitical detail, not helped by disproportionately faint sketching of its non-western characters — a disappointment from the talented filmmaker behind “War Witch,” 2012’s vivid, Oscar-nominated study of African child soldiers.
Between that film and this one, Nguyen signaled his interest in romantic fabulism with “Two Lovers and Bear,” an Arctic sweethearts’ duet between Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany that managed modest U.S. distribution; “Eye on Juliet” may prove a harder sell, and not just because British up-and-comer Joe Cole, the film’s striking leading man, is a less prominent name. Nguyen’s previous film was a precious but arresting reverie, and the same dreamy spirit doesn’t sit quite as comfortably in a world of American corporate invasion and arranged Islamic marriages; there’s too much salient environmental detail at play here for the film to get away with quite such intimate tunnel vision.
There’s a key discrepancy in the film’s fundamental scene-setting: Disaffected security operative Gordon (Cole) is situated in suburban Detroit, while the location of young Ayusha (Lina El Arabi) is given only as “North Africa,” a difference in specificity that favors the American man’s point of view from the outset. As a drone navigator for an international oil giant, surveying and protecting the company’s African pipeline from potential bootleggers, Gordon is also a disembodied presence in several spider-like “hexapods,” scuttling ground-based cameras through which he can also speak to targets of scrutiny. It’s through one of these that he chances upon the regular desert trysts of Ayusha and her illicit lover Karim (Faycal Zeglat), who are planning to flee to Europe to escape her parentally arranged marriage to a far older man.
As he becomes increasingly invested in the couple’s plight, it’s not just because tracking this story of forbidden love — the title’s Romeo-and-Juliet allusions are repeatedly aligned in Nguyen’s script — beats watching the largely silent desert dunes from his Detroit office monitor. Rather, the recently heartbroken Gordon (glimped in the throes of a bitter breakup in the film’s opening scene) feels an increasingly strong connection to Ayusha herself. Given that Ayusha, while appealingly played by Lina El Arabi, is scarcely characterized beyond her eminently sympathetic circumstances, the film’s suggestion that she and Gordon may be cosmic soulmates remains pretty inscrutable.
Any parallels drawn between their respective personal quandaries, meanwhile, are best not dwelt upon. She’s despairing at the prospect of a mandatory, loveless marriage, while he’s frustrated by the inorganic mechanics of Tinder dating, forced on him by his increasingly suspicious friend and colleague Peter (Brent Skagford); the film may not be so glib as to portray these scenarios as equivalent, but both are placed in opposition to transcendent notions of true love. At moments, “Eye on Juliet” is endearing in its exclusive adherence to such idealism. At others, one yearns for the texture and complexity of real life in the storytelling: any knowledge of the political regime in Ayusha’s home country, the personal and professional ramifications of Gordon’s growing complicity in her escape plans, or the potential obstacles Ayusha and Karim face as future refugees — an urgently topical story lead that the film treats as a misty unknown.
It is to the great credit of Cole that his character’s barely credible actions don’t take flight into total fantasy: A winningly unvarnished presence, recently seen to far heftier effect in the A24 release “A Prayer Before Dawn,” he locates a believably inarticulate, disconnected sadness behind Gordon’s open, professionally wearied gaze, though the more aloof aspects of his performance connote a more jaded, jaundiced film. The filmmaking, meanwhile, remains tastefully muted even at the script’s most romantically extravagant junctures: Aside from the odd, distorted dip into drone’s-eye-view night vision, Christophe Collette’s khaki lensing is matched in tone by an assortment of pretty, mournfully folky musical contributions by Canuck band Timber Timbre.