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Berlin Film Review: ‘One & Two’

Like "The Village" without the twist, this elaborately conceived thriller looks great, but doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

With:
Timothee Chalamet, Kiernan Shipka, Grant Bowler, Elizabeth Reaser.

A brother and sister cursed with special powers live in a rural farmhouse encircled by a tall, impenetrable wall in the enticingly conceptual North Carolina-based indie “One & Two.” Why are they sequestered? And is the wall there to protect them from people on the other side, or the other way around? Like an M. Night Shyamalan movie without the twist, Andrew Droz Palermo’s narrative debut (following Sundance-winning small-town docu “Rich Hill”) offers a tense, attenuated supernatural fable full of atmosphere and tantalizing possibility, yet sorely lacking in the kind of resolution that would justify mainstream audiences’ extended suspension of disbelief.

Tightly centered around its cast of four — teen actors Timothee Chalamet and Kiernan Shipka as siblings Zac and Eva, Grant Bowler and Elizabeth Reaser as their parents — this beautifully lensed, hauntingly scored film feels like a kindred spirit to such isolated-environment thrillers as “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Witch,” but never quite delivers on the promise of its intriguing premise, which could make it a popular ticket at festivals like South by Southwest (its next stop after Berlin), but will fail to translate into commercial momentum, once word gets out that there’s no there there.

With their handmade clothes and non-electric lifestyle, it would be easy to mistake this close-knit foursome as a mid-1800s frontier family, or else some sort of simple-living Amish clan. They chase chickens and do old-timey chores (though Chalamet unconvincingly appears to be using a pitchfork for the first time), then spend their free time swimming in the crystal-clear stream — a sceenwriter’s fantasy of homestead living, entirely separate from the labor-intensive, dawn-to-dusk reality it would actually take to sustain this lifestyle.

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The wall is introduced casually at first — just a big, imposing barrier that encircles their property, with no mention of who built it or how long ago. If it weren’t for the airplane that blinks overhead one night (a detail that reminds of the film’s debt to “Dogtooth”), we wouldn’t even know the story was set in contemporary times. And then, out of the blue, Eva does something incredible: By closing her eyes and concentrating really hard, she bursts into a fine, swirling mist, reappearing a split-second later a few hundred feet away, accompanied by a loud cracking noise.

Well, that’s special. These kids can teleport. Their stern dad clearly doesn’t approve, and yet it’s virtually impossible to discern the system of rules by which they’ve been raised. Is this condition the reason they’re cut off from the world, or is it a byproduct of their isolation? Shipka, whom many will recognize as the daughter on “Mad Men,” looks lovelier than ever as Eva, but hasn’t lost that “Bad Seed”-like undercurrent of mischief. What’s going through her head? And why is Zac so compliant by comparison?

Clearly, they’ve been home-schooled, though there are no signs of books, and their vocabulary seems modern enough, despite the ambiguity of how long their family has been cut off. The concept, which Palermo co-wrote with childhood friend Neima Shahdadi, crumbles upon even the most superficial scrutiny: Why erect a giant wall in a movie about characters who can easily teleport through walls? Even if they weren’t so gifted, it’s foolish to pretend that this barrier could keep them in. And why do the nighttime scenes, though gorgeous in their own right, all appear to be lit by floodlights?

The project was developed at the Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Lab, which should have helped to iron out such kinks, and yet, nearly all of the film’s problems stem from questions that Kimberly Sherman should have put to her two writers. Dreaming up such an elaborate scenario seems like an awful lot of trouble for a movie that’s ultimately more interested in metaphors — specifically, exploring that moment in a family’s existence when children must break away from their parents’ control and test their own boundaries.

Though Palermo shows genuine promise as a director, “One & Two” ultimately shares some of the issues “Rich Hill” had in shaping elements into a coherent narrative. Here, the result proves more effective as some sort of mood piece, rather than the vaguely “The Village”-like spine-tingler it aspires to be. There are simply too many loose ends to distract us, and too much empty air in which audiences can’t help but poke holes. In yet another of its arbitrary constructions, Reaser’s sympathetic mother character suffers from some unnamed condition, which amplifies her husband’s anxiety about how to deal with his increasingly defiant children. That might have been an interesting enough setup to run with, instead of saddling audiences with questions that the film isn’t prepared to answer.

Berlin Film Review: 'One & Two'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Generation). (Also in SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: A Bow & Arrow Entertainment, Protagonist Pictures presentation. (International sales: WME, Los Angeles; Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Kimberly Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman. Executive producers, Nigel Williams, Mike Goodridge. Co-producer, Patrick M. Wood.

Crew: Directed by Andrew Droz Palermo. Screenplay, Palermo, Neima Shahdadi. Camera (color, widesreen), Autumn Cheyenne Durald; editor, Alex O'Flinn; music, Nathan Halpern; production designer, Sara Jamieson; art director, Tom Obed; set decorator, Olivia Motley; costume designer, Alana Morshead; sound, Tyler Blythe; supervising sound designer, Pete Horner; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Zach Martin; visual effects supervisor, Joshua James Johnson; special effects, Barry Davis, Nick Andrew, Mike Earp; assistant director, Jeff Keith; casting, Steve Vincent, Sig De Miguel.

With: Timothee Chalamet, Kiernan Shipka, Grant Bowler, Elizabeth Reaser.

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