Having explored an illicit affair between a high-school instructor and student in “A Teacher,” writer-director Hannah Fidell focuses on a doomed relationship of a rather more banal (if age-appropriate) sort in “6 Years.” Although shot and performed in a determinedly raw, naturalistic register, this emotionally roiling portrait of two twentysomething Texas sweethearts too often veers toward melodramatic overstatement, inspiring little empathy or understanding despite the committed performances of promising young leads Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield. The backing of exec producers Mark and Jay Duplass will draw a measure of attention, but not enough to distinguish this low-budget effort in the indie marketplace.
Staggering home drunk one night from a party, Mel (Farmiga) awakens her boyfriend, Dan (Rosenfield), their groggy banter suddenly exploding into an argument; the scuffle that ensues leaves Dan with a bump on the head, and Mel aghast and apologetic. They’re quick to make up, but the incident foreshadows still messier times ahead for two people who have been together for six years — a milestone that seems to inspire more incredulity than respect among their friends and acquaintances. We learn that these Austin natives have known each other most of their lives, but their steadfast devotion to each other is beginning to give way to gnawing dissatisfaction and uncertainty, especially as they’re just starting to figure out what they want to do with themselves: Dan is an intern at a record label, while Mel is an aspiring schoolteacher.
Initially it seems to be a mere matter of their not really liking each other’s friends — though it’s hard to see why, given that Dan, Mel and their respective circles don’t seem to have too many unique interests beyond hanging out, getting wasted, and talking about sex with the sort of strained forthrightness that feels more like a screenwriter’s affectation than anything else. Something similar might be said of the moment when Dan, left alone at a party, impulsively kisses his flirtatious co-worker Amanda (Lindsay Burdge, “A Teacher”), a mistake that will have startlingly ugly consequences for him and Mel — including a night spent in jail, an embittered separation, a narrowly averted crisis, an impulsive betrayal, and several more angry, harrowing confrontations. All this cranked-up turmoil coincides with the arrival of an unexpected job opportunity outside Austin for Dan — a plausible enough development that, under less contrived circumstances, would have been more than enough to prompt the characters toward a thoughtful, poignant reconsideration of their relationship.
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Fidell has a fondness for hurling the viewer directly into the action. Just as “A Teacher” began with its taboo relationship well under way, so “6 Years” picks up near the end of its eponymous time frame: Avoiding flashbacks to happier times for Mel and Dan, the script instead employs brief snippets of exposition to fill in the necessary background. It’s a jagged, stripped-down approach, especially compared with the more full-bodied storytelling of similar-themed dramas like “Blue Valentine,” “Like Crazy” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and with the right finesse, this slender 80-minute feature might well have achieved an impressive balance of narrative economy and bracing forward momentum.
But “6 Years” simply doesn’t have the skill to do more with less. Scene after scene, the writing strikes continually clunky notes; even a simple sequence in which Dan discusses his future with his mother (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), who’s concerned that he might be putting his career on hold for his girlfriend’s sake, feels too obvious by half. Mel’s family, meanwhile, is briefly mentioned but left offscreen, adding to the sense of a story that’s missing a crucial element of context; there’s too little insight into the past and far too much overheated angst in the present.
Farmiga and Rosenfield (“A Most Violent Year”) achieve some of their most natural and moving moments early on, when Dan and Mel are basking in the glow of their as-yet-unspoiled affection, or nervously discussing the possibility of using porn to spice up their sex life. Throughout, the actors are always believable as young lovers slowly realizing they may have committed themselves too soon, and “6 Years” does mine some poignancy from the tension between the life Mel and Dan have long envisioned for themselves, and the possibilities they never thought to consider. To really dramatize that tension, however, would require a more delicate touch than is evinced here.
Farmiga, as luminous and expressive as her older sister Vera, is a galvanic screen presence even when she’s reduced to repeating soap-opera dialogue like “How could you do this to me?!” But at a certain point, she and Rosenfield seem to be leaping over narrative hurdles rather than persuasively inhabiting their characters’ emotional confusion, and Dan and Mel aren’t well defined enough to stand out against the film’s overly familiar backdrop of booze, lust and bad decision making. Andrew Droz Palermo’s handheld widescreen lensing of moodily understated Austin locations lends the drama a fittingly rough-and-ragged texture, but even within the unvarnished aesthetic, the editing choices tend toward the overly abrupt (none more so than the final cut to black), particularly when juxtaposed with the jarring eruptions of upbeat music on the soundtrack.