When Joss Whedon took over writing and directing The Avengers for Marvel Studios, it seemed like a great leap of creative faith for a studio not always known for recruiting distinctive voices. When The Avengers became a global smash, Whedon’s great luck started to look a bit more ominous: would Marvel provide him a feature film career that would keep him in-franchise while supplanting his TV work?Instead, the opposite has happened: Whedon’s only TV project these days is the Marvel spinoff Agents of SHIELD (run more closely by his brother), while his Avengers years also seem to have made him hungry to do more feature work. This has resulted in not only last year’s micro-budget Much Ado About Nothing adaptation, but a restart of his screenwriting career. He cowrote the delightful horror riff The Cabin in the Woods and now has a solo screenwriting credit on In Your Eyes, which made its Tribeca Film Festival debut as Whedon made it available to rent online for five bucks. It’s a good deal; it’s also a movie worth seeing on a big screen in the dark. (It screens again Wednesday afternoon.)
In Your Eyes is a flat-out romance, albeit with a supernatural element. Rebecca (Zoey Kazan) and Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) have never met, but they share a lifelong connection that the movie’s press materials treat as a spoiler but is actually pretty much laid out in the opening credits sequence: sometimes, they can see through each other’s eyes. Not only that, but they feel each other’s physical and emotional extremes, too. The movie establishes this with a short interweaving scene from their childhoods, then rediscovers the characters as twentysomethings as their bizarre power manifests itself more strongly.
The heroes dispense less snark than many Whedon characters do, but they still have some pithy things to say when they discover each other: “I pretty much thought you were PMS,” she confesses, while his first question is whether she might be the devil. She’s not, though she is married, and he’s an ex-con. Both encounter obstacles in their lives, and the whittling down of the usual Whedon ensemble to just two leads keeps the supporting characters from showing any real dimension. Rebecca and Dylan may as well be the only two people in the world, and that may be the point. Their meeting results in a lot of body-less pseudo-dating, like in Her, and as with Spike Jonze’s film, Whedon’s offers any number of metaphors for new relationships: the way a new connection can feel like a voice in your head, or catalyze the desire to spend every waking moment together.
In Your Eyes also counters its bizarre premise with a lot of effective simplicity: their connection is conveyed through cross-cutting, and lots of long dialogue scenes. Kazan and Stahl-David are just plain charming and likable, redeeming the very concept of the earnest romantic hero and heroine after years of Nicholas Sparks claptrap. It’s too bad that either Whedon or director Brin Hill decided to overlay so many scenes with generic yearning rock songs; it comes off like middling TV. The movie also begins with such electric inspiration that its should-be satisfying ending feels like a letdown. Occasionally Whedon feels so conscious of his audience that he holds back from following a personal vision. (Cabin in the Woods, with its genre-burning glee, both audience-savvy and consciously tricky may be his best film project so far.) Even so, In Your Eyes at least deserves one of those Valentine’s Day releases afforded to junk like Endless Love or Safe Haven.