‘Stuck Between Stations’: Sam Rosen, Zoe Lister-Jones and the makings of a magical night, squandered

Still image from Stuck Between Stations. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see during that time. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Two people meet. Perhaps they are antagonistic to one another at first, or perhaps they click immediately in an indefinable way. Both are at a crossroads in life, and they spend one magical night together, walking and talking, maybe kissing, but maybe not. Romance is in the air, but the connection goes deeper than that. Will these two people get together? Or is it destined to be just one night?

This plot synopsis could describe any number of movies. One thinks of Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945), with Judy Garland and Robert Walker, Nancy Savoca's Dogfight (1991), with Lili Taylor and River Phoenix, or Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The "one magical night" formula works really well if the characters are well-drawn and the romantic potential throbs. It gives actors and writers a chance to shine, because the distractions in such movies (ie: plot, explosions, aliens, car crashes) are minimal. If the chemistry between the two leads is strong, such movies appear (appear) to play themselves.

Brady Kiernan's first feature, Stuck Between Stations, should work better than it does, because the familiar elements are all here: two attractive, complex characters (Casper, played by Sam Rosen, and Rebecca, played by Zoe Lister-Jones), an evocative nighttime landscape (Minneapolis, beautifully shot by Minneapolis native Bo Hakala), and an ongoing sense of romantic potential. But something essential—the thing that's needed to distinguish it from all the "one magical night" movies that came before it—is missing.

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Casper is a soldier in the U.S. Army, at home in Minneapolis on bereavement leave from Afghanistan in the wake of his father's death. During an altercation with some thuggish guys at a bar, Casper meets Rebecca, or rather re-meets her: he was in love with her from afar in high school. Rebecca is now a graduate student who has had an affair with her married adviser, putting her academic career in jeopardy (her adviser's wife is the head of the department).

On the sidewalk outside the bar, Casper and Rebecca re-introduce themselves, and while they both are consumed with their life problems, they seem to connect. Rebecca is edgy, not particularly friendly. Casper doesn't seem to notice—he's too gaga about his high school dream girl being right in front of him. An informal high school reunion is going on that night at someone's house, and Casper asks Rebecca if she wants to go. She says sure, so off they go into the night.

Kiernan films a lot of the action with a split screen, following each character, and he uses it even during intimate scenes with, essentially, two closeups, seen side by side. It's an interesting technique, and calls to mind the brilliant "Reality vs. Expectation" sequence in 500 Days of Summer, where the split screen is used to its fullest and most emotional potential. While in 500 Days of Summer the split screen showed the same character playing out two very different scenarios at the same time, in Stuck Between Stations, it is meant to highlight the differences between the two characters—their inherent separation by time, lifestyle, politics (she is shocked that he is a soldier and reacts to that news as though he has said, "I enjoy boiling puppies in oil"). On some subterranean level, they may be connecting, but the split screen reminds us how far apart they really are. The split screen tells us what we already know, and therein lies the problem with it: it ends up being just an attention-getting cinematic trick.

Casper and Rebecca get along great, although she does say to him right off the bat that they are only going to be friends. They smoke weed, they hang out at a 7/11 eating microwave burritos, they reminisce, they attend a midnight burlesque circus (a great sequence), they ride bikes with a crazy gang (led by their old classmate, Paddy, played by Josh Hartnett, in a really enjoyable cameo), and have one of those endless nights involving multiple locations that evokes the kind of energy present in restless 20-something people who are adults, but not quite grown up yet.

Casper has seen some awful things in Afghanistan, and is ambivalent enough about his father's death that he refuses to enter his childhood home and instead sleeps in a tent in the backyard. Rebecca's love life is out of control, and her adviser (played in nice harried fashion by Michael Imperioli), whose wife is on the warpath, shows up occasionally to plead, beg and scold.

Screenwriter Nat Bennett seems to view Casper's military service with the eyes of someone who has never left the Upper West Side. Everyone who meets Casper seems shocked and almost personally offended that he is in the military, and Paddy is out-and-out hostile, railing in a typically left-wing way at him about Halliburton and imperialism, sneering at Casper's life choices. It is surprising that Paddy didn't shout "No blood for oil" right in Casper's face. While Kiernan and Bennett are obviously making a point about the ideological underpinnings that separate us, it's handled in a ham-fisted way. Casper treats it all with a tired resignation, borne out of long experience with people who didn't get why he wanted to join the military, starting with his hippie father, who refused to accept it, writing him hostile letters while he was in Afghanistan.

Minneapolis emerges as another character in the movie, and, like the recent Cold Weather, evokes a sense of the locale in a specific and beautiful way. Hakala does a superb job creating the feel of the film. Minneapolis looks romantic, uninhabited, like a movie set on which the characters' dreams and hopes are projected. The streets are wide and empty, the air is cold and dark, and at 3 in the morning the city becomes an underground playground for everyone who's still up and restless and waiting for the night to happen.

Sam Rosen, as Casper, has a very available presence, and he doesn't push as an actor. He shows what it means to Casper to be hanging out with the girl he dreamt about in high school (he remembers an encounter they had in a classroom almost as if it were yesterday), and how much he likes her now. He's not judgmental about her current chaos, and even engineers a break-in into her adviser's house to retrieve her computer.

Zoe Lister-Jones plays Rebecca as jaded, a little bit hard and guarded, and, despite her put-together appearance and intellectual success, a big mess. It's actually a refreshing change to the usual way these plots go, with a troubled man distracted by sorrow coming back to life again through his encounter with a life-loving adorable pixie who shows him the joys of being spontaneous. At least we are spared that cliche.

Rebecca is allowed to be human, too, and the couple's dynamic is sweet, although their collective oh, whatever attitude about so much in life ends up dampening the sense we should have that these two people need to be together. (I lost count of how many times the two lead characters actually say the word "whatever.")

Casper and Rebecca's long night ends with the two of them sitting around a campfire in Casper's backyard, drinking beer, sharing war stories (literal on Casper's part, and figurative on Rebecca's). She has a long monologue about a horrifying experience she had in South America with a friend, and he tells her a story of a really bad day he had in Afghanistan when some friends were blown up by an IED. It's artificial—here are two speeches, back to back—but both actors play it very well, and the monologues are well-written.

Rosen in particular shows a real quiet gift for listening, his response shots to Rebecca's horrible story showing us Casper's character, his kindness, his need to protect. In that moment, you can see that he is actually in love with her. Rebecca's story is awful, in and of itself, but it was Rosen's closeups in reaction that really helped it land. Unfortunately, by that point in the film it was too late to make a difference. The cumulative effect of all of the "Whatevers" over the course of the film had done its work. The possibility of romance is there, but it's buried under the over-it pose.

Stuck Between Stations makes you appreciate just how difficult it is to make movies like Dogfight, Before Sunrise or The Clock, all of which looked effortless.

It seems like this one ought to have the ingredients of a winner, too: Place two characters in proximity to one another for a 24-hour period, watch them talk, laugh, and meander aimlessly, as we revel in the hope that maybe these two will kiss at some point, and break through to a deeper level. Or maybe not. Whatever.