“I Think We’re Alone Now,” Reed Morano’s handsome, heavily-underlined treatise on solitude, opens on a post-apocalyptic town near the Hudson River. Tattered flags, that favorite symbol of failed Americana, droop on the empty Main St. of this new ghost town. And here comes its sheriff, an ex-librarian named Del (Peter Dinklage, straight-shouldered and stable) who is the sole survivor of the sudden something-or-other that wiped out the 1,600 people in his hamlet, and presumably, everyone else in the world. Enter teenage-ish Grace (Elle Fanning) with a car full of M-80s and a handgun in the backseat to detonate Del’s civilized society-of-one — though the fireworks she lights on her first night set a high bar for beauty and emotional impact that the film never manages to top.
Del is fine on his own. He felt more alone before his neighbors died off: a small, serious man surrounded by 1,599 other residents who treated him like a misfit. Now, he spends his days like a bacteria stripping the town to its bones. He politely breaks into each home, harvests batteries from clocks and electric toothbrushes, cleans out rotting refrigerators, wraps up corpses, and drives the mummifying bodies out for burial. His makeshift cemetery is so crowded with round-topped graves, a skier could use it as mogul practice. To be honest, Del makes the apocalypse look pleasant. A self-contained man with a small ecological footprint, he could live forever on his stash of wine, fresh fish, and books. When he turns on a movie, he selects a silent Harold Lloyd.
Extermination of mankind aside, audiences know this feeling. It’s the period after a break-up, when the mourning has passed and the emptiness has been refilled with an adamant independence. People in this phase tend to proselytize about the joys of sprawling across the bed and planning each night exactly how they want. Why make room for another person who will throw life off-balance?
Del would rather enjoy his freedoms. But Grace doesn’t give him a choice. Instead of obeying his command to leave, she follows him home, drinks his wine, and mis-shelves his books. Her loud mouth and baggy sweaters take up an enormous amount of space. In a town this still, the sound of her car reverberates for a mile. Later, the thud-thud of footsteps coming from downstairs has the same rhythm of a heartbeat.
To Morano, a cinematographer-turned-director who helmed several episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and screenwriter Mike Makowsky, this two-person dystopia is about the compromises in forming a community. The only perfect democracy has one voter, which makes it technically a dictatorship. Morano’s favorite type of shot positions one character in the center of the frame surrounded by empty space they’re unwilling to share. Dinklage and Fanning are rarely shown together, a much smarter visual choice than her thudding close-ups of the books “See You in Hell” and “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
Is this a romance? A little. Grace sets the tone in their first interaction when Del attempts to send her away. “You’re telling me you’re totally fine letting the human race go extinct?” she asks. It’s a challenge, or an invitation, or both. With Fanning, it’s hard to tell. She delivers all her lines in the flat affectlessness of a bored teen. The script makes her announce theories that could have gone unsaid. There’s a lovely moment when she breaks into Del’s filing cabinets and discovers he’s made a card catalogue index of every person in town. As she flips through the photos, the voices of the dead echo in overlapping waves — so much life wanting to be heard. But the spell is broken when Grace brandishes the photos in an argument with Del and announces the obvious: “People are objects to you.”
Well, naturally. A librarian would see himself as the last man standing in Ephesus, an archivist responsible for preserving knowledge before it’s lost. We see him flip through the deceased like flashcards, quizzing himself on names and hobbies. In the home of a dead woman, he snips that she owes $700 for an overdue copy of “War & Peace” that must be returned to the shelves. His irritation feels like a jokey off-beat. But despite the bad line, Morano doesn’t undermine his quest — even though the film never questions the point.
Once “I Think We’re Alone Now” establishes that Grace and Del represent love versus stability, the film doesn’t have a convincing way to reconcile the two. An adorable violin-accompanied montage doesn’t sell us on their partnership. A scene where they cruise blasting metal as Fanning head-bangs in slo-mo just seems like a beautifully photographed migraine. Better is a bit where they build a solar panel, a symbol of how people accomplish things as a team that they’d never bother to do alone.
Eventually, the film throws up its hands, declares their bond a given, and shifts into a subplot that only superficially pulls its themes together. Would Del’s life be more content if Grace had never lit up his sky? The strongest argument in support of their discordant connection is a moment when Del allows Grace to share his grief. Good food, and good feelings, can be savored alone. But in bad times, others help shoulder the burden.