If one were to simply judge The One I Love based on trailers, cast, and even the film's title, it would probably look like the just another small budget dramedy built for the festival circuit. And that would be a fair guess; Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass have made their share of such films and its position as a Sundance favorite seemed like a natural for the genre. But they say never to judge a book by its cover, and quickly into The One I Love it becomes clear there is so much more here than meets the eye.
Indeed, this is a film that explores a crumbling relationship between Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss), their marriage having reached the point where one barely recognizes the other. We learn early on that Ethan betrayed Sophie's trust and things have never been the same since, and at the suggestion of their therapist (Ted Danson) they head out to a country retreat of his choosing. It's only for a weekend but supposedly that is all most couples have ever needed there, and for a time it seems to be working. In such a beautiful, idyllic landscape it's easy to tap into that youthful energy and passion again. But a night of romantic bliss turns out to be more tangible for one that it is for the other, and it's just the start of a series of really strange occurrences that put their love to the test.
This is one of those cases where you don't want to have anything spoiled because, all evidence to the contrary, this is a film that combines paranormal, sci-fi, and mystery elements to a masterful degree. Director Charlie McDowell (the son of Malcolm McDowell) and writer Justin Lader use these elements plus a healthy dose of comedy to look at how people change over the course of a relationship, and how that often can drive a wedge between them. But more than that, it's about the common desire to change our significant others into our idea of perfection. Would that necessarily be a good thing, though? Or are the little imperfections what cause people to fall in love to begin with? Typically attempts to mold a significant other end in disaster, don’t they? In the most positive sense, The One I Love is like a cousin to the metaphysical rom-com Ruby Sparks, and asks many of the same questions about individuality. Can love withstand the natural changes all people go through over time? It feels like something that might've sprung from the headspace of Spike Jonze, and should put McDowell on the map as a filmmaker to watch.
With only Moss and Duplass occupying the vast majority of screen time in basically one location the film could have become stuffy or repetitive. But as McDowell explores the nuances of Ethan and Sophie's marriage, in particular the little meaningless arguments that are causing an outsized rift, we never get tired of learning more about these people. That's a credit to the subtle performances of the cast which requires them to do basically everything under the sun. The movie is funny but in a knowing sort of way, and it can also get very dark at times. Suffice it to say, those who have been in a long-term coupling will probably see some things that strike a painful nerve. The One I Love uses the fantastical to strike at something truthful about matters of the heart, and there aren't many films that have done it quite so well.