Directed by Mike Cahill
In just three years, Brit Marling has developed one of the most endearingly strange niches in American movies. Since 2011, she's appeared in four thrillers for Fox Searchlight, often sharing screenwriting credit with her two most frequent collaborators, Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill, whose interests in unsettling mysteries seem to overlap. Batmanglij seems most engaged by cults and spies (The East and Sound of My Voice both involve reporters infiltrating a mysterious organization), while Cahill favors lo-sci-fi like Another Earth. Marling has a vaguely ethereal presence; she often looks as if she's thoughtfully considering whether to fully materialize or ascend to another plane. But she still manages to shift depending on the project: She was a skeptic in East, a charismatic leader in Voice, and a broken soul for Earth.
For Cahill's I Origins, she steps away from the screenplay and takes a supporting role behind Michael Pitt, playing a scientist focusing his research on eye development (the title is a goofier pun than the sincere story warrants). Marling is his assistant, and together they form a scruffy tangle of glasses and sweaters. Despite this common ground, their initial bond isn't romantic; instead, Pitt meets a masked girl (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) at a Halloween party, then later tracks her down through his keen ocular recognition. They begin a passionate affair, only conflicted when her spirituality bumps up against his scientific mind and somewhat laughable desire to "end the debate once and for all" about, uh, the existence of God (best of luck, buddy). Pitt's character also nurses a cartoonish disdain for the very mention of the word "soul" and a matching fetishization for saying "data points." Cahill has a way of making science sound like mumbo-jumbo.
But the movie's romantic loopiness has the intended effect: it leads into a strange rabbit hole of science, fiction, and forms of religion that might fall somewhere in between. Shooting around Brooklyn and Queens, often with a handheld camera, Cahill sometimes blurs and smears his backgrounds, toying with his own eyes. He also applies weird dream logic where it doesn't always belong: at one crucial juncture, a photo of a diner in Boise leads Pitt to visit the location for no real reason (even the semi-hallucinatory reason the movie reveals doesn't make a ton of sense). This can be patience-trying—both of Cahill's films have a slightly clueless sense of how real people might talk or behave—but I Origins gets a lot of mileage out of its unpredictability (at least if you manage to avoid the trailer, which gives away too much) and its willingness to pose sometimes confounding questions without simple answers. Marling's other projects have done this too; this one can sit alongside Sound of My Voice as one of the best-realized so far. So many indie dramas feel locked into place after twenty or thirty minutes; this one mutates before your eyes.
Opens July 18