Film Review: ‘Jonathan’

A young Manhattan man has a most unusual relationship with his brother in Bill Oliver’s quietly involving debut feature.

The titular figure in “Jonathan” has a secret that circumscribes his and another life, one bizarre enough that it must be kept hidden from outsiders. An offbeat spin on the dual-personality narrative, this first feature by director Bill Oliver and co-scenarist Peter Nickowitz is billed somewhat inexplicably in press materials as a “science-fiction fable.” But their quietly involving drama eschews any overt fantasy trappings, let alone the thriller melodramatics its premise might lead one to expect. Indeed, its doggedly low-key approach may frustrate genre fans and limit commercial prospects. But taken on its own confidently crafted terms, “Jonathan” is an intelligent, absorbing tale that provides an impressive showcase for “Baby Driver” star Ansel Elgort.

Elgort’s Jonathan is a young Manhattanite living a rather solitary life in the crowded big city. He works part-time as a draftsman at an architectural firm (Douglas Hodge plays his “genius” boss), where his evident talent prompts offers of full employment that he politely declines, claiming a sick relative needs him. But the truth is something different: Jonathan actually shares a body with his brother John, the gregarious, outgoing flip side to his milquetoast loner. Abandoned by their mother, raised by the expert (Patricia Clarkson as Dr. Nairman) who diagnosed their unique condition, the two divide each day into 12-hour shifts in which each works, plays and sleeps away their half of 24 hours. They speak only via daily video messages in which both dutifully recount their activities.

This curious but necessary arrangement becomes unbalanced, however, when Jonathan realizes John has been keeping a secret: He’s acquired a steady girlfriend — bartender Elena (Suki Waterhouse) — something they (and Dr. Nairman) had agreed was against the rules that hold their conjoined lives manageably together. But while Jonathan craves routine, even restriction, needing no companionship but his brother’s, the more emotionally open and needy John is desperate for wider horizons.

When this perceived betrayal is uncovered (made worse by Jonathan’s deployment of a private eye, played by Matt Bomer in just one scene), John breaks it off with Elena, who at first thinks the whole “two people, one body” thing is a ridiculous ruse. But as he retreats into resulting depression, not communicating with his brother or otherwise surfacing for days on end, a worried Jonathan becomes awkward friends with her — then something more. All this escalates toward a crisis in which, seemingly, the two siblings can no longer go on without one ruining the other’s life.

It’s a testament to Elgort’s understated yet distinct dual performances that before we fully grasp John/Jonathan’s circumstance (just one-quarter in), we’re not even sure we’re watching the same actor — though cosmetically there’s little differentiation beyond how the brothers comb their hair. Using no broad strokes whatsoever, the actor nonetheless makes the two instantly individual via details of body language, voice and facial expressiveness. Clarkson’s familiar sympathy and authority make it easy to believe in her rather murkily defined role (is Dr. Nairman a researcher? a medical scientist? a psychiatric expert?).  Waterhouse makes something creditably lived-in out of her own lightly sketched part, a welcome evolution from prior appearances (such as “The Bad Batch”) where she seemed lean too heavily on the “model” part of “model-turned-actress.”

Though there’s the faintest whiff of futurism in the spare cleanliness of Zach Kuperstein’s widescreen lensing and Lisa Myers’ mostly white-on-white production design — all testaments to Jonathan’s need for strict order — this isn’t sci-fi, per se. More notably, the film isn’t horror or suspense, either, though nearly every split-personality narrative from “Psycho” to “Dead Ringers” and beyond has eventually gone down those genre paths. There’s no Jekyll & Hyde formula here, or even a surprise revelation about the “real” nature of the brothers’ co-tenancy, though viewers may well speculate their own explanation rather than the one on offer.

Instead, “Jonathan” is simply a close, unadorned, un-gimmicky character study about a character (or characters) who in any other context would invite not just a more artifice-driven telling, but violent narrative twists. If you can lay aside such expectations, this modest but accomplished feature will prove a satisfying if not quite classifiable experience. Adding to its calm peculiarity is a largely ambient-style score by Brooke & Will Blair.