There is an odd feeling that often accompanies watching the early works of famed creators. These works are often immature, lacking the confidence and elegance of their creators' later and more famous efforts. Yet they often also show the signs of future greatness.
I had this feeling while watching Brin Hill's film In Your Eyes, based on a script by Joss Whedon. Released online this April almost immediately following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film appears at first glance to be one of Whedon's artistic low-budget indulgences, such as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) or Much Ado About Nothing (2012), which he allows himself between his big- and small-screen Marvelverse projects. What makes In Your Eyes different, however, is the fact that it was originally written in 1992, one of Whedon's first original scripts. And even though it has reportedly gone through many drafts before its production and release this year, the film still feels like the early work of a screenwriter making his first hesitant moves.
The film follows two protagonists. Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) is a young New Hampshire rich girl with a deeply traumatic past caught in a loveless marriage to an ambitious doctor (Mark Feuerstein), and Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is a New Mexico ex-con on parole, stuck in a dead-end job, alienated by his family and tempted by the possibility of returning to life of crime. Early in the film, Rebecca and Dylan discover that they share a mental connection, allowing them to see things through each other's eyes and hear each other's speech. With each of them finding a soul mate in the other, they begin falling for each other while pushing away their close friends and relatives.
Whedon has managed to build himself a fanbase that's big and loyal enough to watch pretty much anything that has his name on it—indeed, one criticism often leveled toward his recent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series is that people wouldn't have stayed with the show if it didn't have his name in the credits. I suspect the same is true for In Your Eyes: if it wasn't for Whedon's involvement, no one would have given the film a second look. The film's flaws are painfully obvious: structurally, it builds up quickly and unconvincingly, as the protagonists discover their mental connection and get comfortable with it really fast, and it then struggles to maintain dramatic tension by making its characters deliberately stupid (surely, they have noticed that people give them weird looks when they appear to be talking to themselves. How hard can it be to keep discreet about something like this?). Another big problem is the general feeling of anachronism that accompanies the film: when the script was originally written, the idea of two people having a long-distance intimate relationship must have been pretty radical. Today we have cell phones (briefly mentioned but never seen in the film) and the Internet (which simply doesn't exist).
But even if the script has problems coming together, its individual scenes show Whedon's talent for writing captivating characters and memorable dialogue. The romance that slowly develops between Rebecca and Dylan maneuvers between charming comic scenes (my favorite being a scene that recalls Whedon's early background in sitcoms where Rebecca tries playing Cyrano de Bergerac for Dylan while he is on a date) and more intimate scenes where they learn about each other from within, mentally and physically. The handling of the relationship between the two characters is sometimes overly sentimental, but done with enough sensitivity to win me over. And though I have no way of knowing just how many changes the characters went through in the script's different drafts over the years, the two protagonists sometimes felt like prototypes for Whedon's later, beloved characters: Rebecca, in particular feels like an early version of Buffy's Willow or Angel's Fred—an introverted, insecure woman who slowly gains confidence and strength.
From a visual standpoint, In Your Eyes is a significant departure from Whedon's other low-budget productions. While both Dr. Horrible and Much Ado about Nothing emphasized their improvised settings, in In Your Eyes director Hill makes a surprisingly elegant use of the limited sets with handsome panoramic shots of both the California desert and the rainy New Hampshire scenery. There are some nice nuances to the shift in color palette between the two locations that serve as an appropriate metaphor for the mental and physical distance between Rebecca and Dylan. However, while they give pleasant enough performances, neither Kazan nor Stahl-David are in the league of Whedon's regular cast members such as Nathan Fillion or Amy Acker.
People who know nothing about Whedon and his work will probably dismiss In Your Eyes as a harmless but forgettable romantic drama. Those familiar with Whedon, and especially his hardcore fans, are unlikely to include it among his greatest works. But it's nonetheless more representative of what makes his acclaimed works great than any of his recent big- or small-budget projects.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.