Book of Love (2004)
One of the best things about independent films is their ability to focus on the tiny stories, little moments in life instead of grand epics. Festivals such as the famous Sundance are able to showcase these little films and provide the exposure they deserve. One film in this category is ‘Book of Love’ written and directed by Alan Brown. It focuses the unblinking eye of the camera on a married couple David (Simon Baker) and Elaine (Frances O'Connor). Their lives have reached that point where passion is slowly being replaced with complacency, they are still in love but the expression has moved into that part of a long term marriage where they know each other well, a slight touch or look can do where more passionate expressions once existed.
David is a history teacher at a private girl’s school, his curriculum focusing on the horrible genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime. Since both are still attractive it is only natural that a student, Heather (Bryce Dallas Howard) has a crush on David. She finds her teacher to be a mature, intelligent man, far removed from any boys in her social circles. David and Elaine cross paths with a fifteen year old boy, Chet (Gregory Smith) and take an instant liking to him. Elaine initially feels sorry for the boy, his mother is dead, his father works all the time and he is somewhat isolated at school, before becoming involved with David and Elaine Chet’s life consists of his place on the swim team and working at the ice cream parlor where he met the couple. One night the pair invites Chet over for dinner and evening of conversation. Despite his age, or lack thereof, Elaine serves the boy several glasses of wine, David falls asleep and Chet tries to kiss Elaine. At first she rebuffs him but he tries again a little later and you can see that she is more than tempted. Like many professional couples they never took the time to have children. Young enough to feel there is still time Elaine’s biological clock is softly ticking. Elaine’s motherly instincts soon give way to her need for the passion that has dwindled in her marriage.
The story does have an emotional impact, not one that shocks the audience but it organically grows on you. While many more mainstream films would have gone for the cheap and puerile aspects of the sexual aspect of the tale this film remains focused on the emotional state of the characters although not enough time is afforded to really go deep enough into the transition of their feelings. As with most Indy films each foot of film is costly so there is a trend to a more fugal method of telling the story. Here this method leaves too much for the audience to fill in instead of permitting the film to detail the story arc. There was a sense that something was missing, almost as if necessary scenes where left on the editor’s floor. If also may have been better if the crush that Heather had on David was explored a bit more, contrasting his restraint with the impulsiveness of his wife. The movement of David’s reaction to his wife’s infidelity moves too swiftly. He goes from despair to anger to ultimately inviting the boy on vacation with them without enough expository to his internal motivation.
The cast was well chosen. Frances O'Connor goes above and beyond with a character that is tricky to manage. She avoids the danger of playing Elaine as a twenty first century Mrs. Robinson; instead she gives us a woman approaching her thirties that is not ready to give up her youth. Her emotional state comes across as honest, never forced or contrived. Most in the audience will remember her as the mother in AI, a film that only touched upon her talent. This film gives a much better showcase and hopefully a look at better roles in her future. Simon Baker is perfect as David. Attractive but not so much that most men watching cannot identify with him. He brings excellent little touches to the character of David. In one of the opening scenes we see him in front of the mirror checking the growth of his love handles and stomach, here is a man that is worried about his entry into middle age. He also tries to control his surroundings with little habits like correcting the grammar of others, more like an English teacher than a history professor. Most of the younger audience members will know Gregory Smith from his role as the angst ridden son of the WB’s Everwood. He is fortunately talented enough to take the character of Chet away from the typical hormonally driven teenager to one that is deeper, more emotionally invested. One actress here shines even though her role is little more than a bit part, Bryce Dallas Howard. Daughter of actor/director Ron Howard she has inherited more than her father’s red hair, she has talent. Even in this small role she demonstrates ability and I look forward to her moving from paying her dues with roles like this to more significant vehicles.
This film was written and directed by Alan Brown and I have to say the man has promise in both fields. This fledgling opus shows that there is a lot of talent there; he just needs the opportunity and time to develop it. Aside from the aforementioned pacing problem Brown gives in to a typical independent director’s technique of being a bit too artsy. In the initial love scene between Elaine and Chet there are numerous jump cuts, frames removed from the shot that are not only disconcerting but they take the audience out of he emotional focus of the moment. He also inter-cuts shots of rain falling on flowers during this scene, nice to look at but they do little to advance the feelings or situation of the characters. Brown appears to be a natural story teller but with some practice he will certainly develop his style and I am certain produce some incredible films. The film opens and closes with a Cambodian girl working on a loom. I suppose this is to symbolize how lives are intertwined and it is a nice touch even though it’s a bit abstract. Brown also throws in a little sub plot of two lesbian friends of David and Elaine that want to have a baby. This does very little to advance the main story bit does help with the aftermath. The ending is a little too concise with a twist that comes out of the blue with no explanation.
The DVD was released by Sundance Home Entertainment in association with Hart Sharp Video and they did a great job of presentation. The anamorphic video is very good with a realistic color palette that displays believable flesh tones. There is some scenes that could have been crisper but overall it works. The audio was presented in Dolby 2.0 and considering the film also works well. There is good channel separation although a bit light on the low end of the audio spectrum. For extras there are two featurettes; ‘2004 Sundance Film Festival profile of director Alan Brown’ and ‘Inside Book Of Love: A conversation with director Alan Brown’. Both are interesting for those that follow the Indy circuit. While this film did not hit the mark completely it is well worth having in your collection.