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Film Review

Another Earth

The urge to travel back in time to undo a mistake has often been the subject of stories. There is no one who has not wanted to undo a thoughtless word or deed, but the river only runs in one direction. A millennium ago, Omar Khayyam famously wrote: "The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it." Using this theme, Brit Marling, a young (b. 1984) American writer, director, and actress, has co-written, co-produced, and starred in "Another Earth". She plays Rhoda, interested in astronomy, who has just graduated from high school and looking forward to college. Rhoda goes to a party, drinks too much, and causes an accident on her way home. She kills the wife and young daughter of John Burroughs, a composer. Burroughs himself is in a coma for weeks. All of this occurs as a new planet, seemingly identical to earth, suddenly appears overhead, growing brighter and larger.

The story then skips forward four years, to Rhoda's release from prison. Her family welcomes her back, but she is clearly depressed, and retreats to an attic room, with the sole decoration of a color photograph of the Horse Nebula. She begins to look for work, and ends up as a janitor at a local school. Her fellow janitor is a taciturn, enigmatic older Indian immigrant, who seems oblivious to everything, yet gives her something very useful. The film follows her drudgery at the school, from cleaning toilets to scrubbing graffiti off walls. She is haunted by what she has done, and remains depressed. One day, when she has walked back to the site of the accident, she sees a man in a pickup truck leave a doll, as a small memorial. She realizes that this is the father, John Burroughs, and finds his house. The house is neglected, with bags of trash in the yard, and she sees him inside, unshaven, in shabby clothes, drinking. Impulsively, she knocks at his door, and pretends to be from a cleaning service offering a free trial cleaning. He reluctantly allows her to come in, and after some hesitation and anxiety, she begins to clean. The house is filthy, the sink filled with weeks of dishes, and trash everywhere. He asks her when she can return, which she does weekly. Her company does help Burroughs, and he begins to struggle toward some sort of normal life. He doesn't suspect that she was the teenage driver because she was under age and her name never released.

Shortly after Rhoda had been released from prison, scientists succeeded in contacting the new planet. The nature of the contact is astonishing, and an expedition is planned to reach the planet. One member of the public will be aboard, selected by an essay contest: why do I want to go to this planet? Rhoda writes one. Although the story seems to veer into science fiction, the film is really about atonement and redemption, with an inspired twist. How can someone truly atone for a terrible thing? Does atonement by the perpetrator really help the victim? "Another Earth" explores these age old questions uncommonly well, and the final scene is unforgettable.

Marling's performance is pitch perfect, as she wisely underplays her character. The cinematography, nights in grays, and days with bleached out colors, seem appropriate for the story. The music, like the story, is haunting. One improbable but beautiful sound is a piece played on a handsaw. The director, Mike Cahill, was a college classmate of Marling, and they had made an earlier film together. This is a modest but very accomplished film, with a strong story that is quite moving. I loved it, and think that both Marling and Cahill are destined for even greater things. "Another Earth" has been playing at Opera Plaza on one of their larger screens for several weeks, and at the Sequoia in Mill Valley, so may not be around much longer. But so worth seeing.

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