Ryan Piers Williams returns to Edinburgh with his sophomore feature as director (following 2010’s The Dry Land) with X/Y (2014), a largely insightful and refreshing portrayal of relationships between several thirtysomethings in New York. Beginning with the break-up of Mark (Williams) and Sylvia (America Ferrara), played with an economy of dialogue by the two convincing leads, the film’s cast of characters then expands beyond the central couple to their two friends, with a structure that gives equal weight to all four in sections titled by name; ‘Mark’, ‘Jen’, ‘Jake’ and ‘Sylvia’. Communication is key between each of the characters and the lack thereof in Mark and Sylvia’s relationship is seen as the cause of its collapse.
This becomes a common theme throughout as Williams takes the unusual tactic of following the misadventures of his central pair’s friends – characters who would no doubt be relegated to the Greek chorus in most rom-coms. Following Mark’s post-break-up migration to Jake’s sofa, rather than provide the perspective on his ex-partner’s equivalent brooding, William’s instead switches focus to Sylvia’s friend, Jen (Melonie Diaz), revealed to be a flawed and well-written character – out of work and prone to irresponsible spending, but intelligent enough to recognise where her friend is lacking feelings of culpability in the failing of her relationship. Though Jen’s place in the film as a whole is disappointingly limited, Diaz brings an intense authenticity and charm to the role that lifts the serious mood.
Jake (Jon Paul Phillips) is another welcome presence, a model/artist/photographer/surfer still suffering from the break-up of his own long-term relationship in the months prior. Jake and Mark seem unable to reconcile their own comparative failings, both as the other half of a couple or as well-adjusted adults, and their somewhat competitive frustrations prove fuel for a surprising twist in their friendship. Phillips’ Jake is coolly detached and brimming with emotion under the surface, making him easily relatable and satisfyingly ambiguous, only aiding the four-part structure in that he reveals just enough for the screen time he’s allowed – a tactic that may have proved frustrating in the hands of a lesser director.
The heart of the film is undoubtedly Sylvia, however, and Ferrara brings a welcome physicality to the role, as her character is as direct and assertive professionally as she becomes a more careful and attentive listener in her personal life. Though the dramatic potential in X/Y is somewhat muted – Jen’s precarious financial situation isn’t fully explored, Mark and Jake suppress any latent feelings in the aftermath of their newfound closeness, and the potential for a reconciliation between Mark and Sylvia seems inevitable – this only makes for a more mature, authentic take on the complexities of contemporary relationships for which Williams and his accomplished cast deserve high praise.
The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.