Attending a former girlfriend’s wedding is possibly the least likely way to meet a new flame, but that’s only the first of several unexpected developments to befall a young New Yorker in “How He Fell in Love.” Writer-director Marc Meyers’ first feature since 2010’s “Harvest” uses its initial meet-cute scenario as the jumping-off point for an intimate and incisive portrait of a clandestine affair, and the thorny consequences it begets for all involved. Mature and moving in its navigation of convoluted, conflicting desires, it’s an indie as assured in its silences as it is in its speeches, and should resonate with discerning audiences during its limited theatrical run.
Though Meyers’ handheld cinematography can occasionally become too shaky-cam wobbly, his widescreen framing attunes itself to the the spaces between characters as a means of expressing their waxing and waning closeness. That’s true from the moment 31-year-old Travis (Matt McGorry) ditches his ex’s nuptials and is offered a ride back to New York by 44-year-old Ellen (Amy Hargreaves), who has come to the festivities without her husband Henry (Mark Blum), stuck tending to a sick mother in Florida. Their shoulders just slightly too close for platonic comfort as they ride home, the two strangers share a guarded but instantly relaxed dynamic. It’s thus no surprise when, days later, Travis — in the midst of a rocky patch with current girlfriend Monica (Britne Oldford) — shows up at one of Ellen’s yoga classes.
Before long, Travis and Ellen are going on dates, and then absconding to hotel rooms, and then taking trips to upstate bed and breakfasts. When not capturing their affection in fleeting, penetrating snapshots, Meyers stages their budding love in scenes whose conversations are broken up by natural pauses that do much to enhance the realism of their rapport. His dialogue boasts a similar off-the-cuff artlessness that lends believable weight to their burgeoning passion — which for Travis is merely exciting, and for Ellen seems to function as an enlivening respite from a troubled marriage.
As she eventually reveals to Travis, her husband Henry is in fact in his 60s, and the couple’s age difference, combined with tensions over her inability to have (and his disinterest in adopting) children, are the primary reasons for her openness to this extramarital dalliance. “How He Fell in Love,” however, refuses to simplify its characters or their roiling interior states. As the film gradually shifts its narrative focus away from Travis and toward Ellen, what materializes is a window into one woman’s sudden mid-life crisis, born not from straightforward boredom and aging-related anxiety, but from a messy stew of anger, frustration, fear, regret, self-loathing, and doubt. When, while sharing a bath with Travis, she muses, “Fate is a funny thing,” the comment resounds with heartache over the unlucky combination of forces that have conspired to stymie her shot at motherhood — and to leave her in her present, confused condition.
Confrontations and reconciliations ensue, yet “How He Fell in Love” is shrewd enough to recognize that inapt trysts can ultimately bring clarity to both parties (if only once the affair is over), even as it avoids resolving its drama with unwarranted tidiness. Shot on location in Manhattan, and infused with an authentic sense of the city’s electricity and loneliness (a mood amplified by Jay Lifton’s acoustic guitar-heavy score), “How He Fell in Love” marks Meyers as an astute chronicler of romantic relationships, as well as a gifted director of actors.
In his capable hands, McGorry (ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder”) embodies Travis as a good-hearted man who nonetheless doesn’t quite see the selfishness underscoring his feelings of love. He’s superbly matched by Hargreaves, who — after years of solid supporting work in, among others, “Blue Ruin” and Showtime’s “Homeland” — turns in a quiet, small-scale tour de force. Connecting the dots between Ellen’s giggles at having her neck nuzzled by Travis in a car, and her marital bedroom freak-out opposite Henry, she delivers a performance of naked, nuanced emotion that helps the film pinpoint the friction — epitomized by Ellen wondering aloud if Travis is the same “outside” their meet-ups as he is during them — between the exhilaration of new passion and the more sobering complexity of long-term monogamy.