There may be nothing as Old Hollywood as the narrative about a pretty girl summoning up a dose of pluck to triumph over adversity. And yet Brit Marling — the lithe, stunning co-writer and star of 2011 Sundance Film Festival hits Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, who gives good quotes about how she had to become a screenwriter because she wanted more from her acting career than prototypical starlet parts amounting to "girl in bikini running from man with chainsaw" — has been hailed as both the atypical "it" girl of the moment and the hope for a future in which, instead of complaining about The Man/men holding them down, sisters start doin' it for themselves or whatever.
In the first of the Marling films to make it to market, Mike Cahill's Another Earth, Marling plays Rhoda, a seventeen-year-old who is celebrating her acceptance to MIT to study astrophysics on the same night that a new planet is discovered. Called Earth 2, this planet will prove to house a parallel universe populated by doppelgängers for each resident of Earth 1. Buzzed on beer and distracted by this new orb on the horizon, Rhoda crashes her car into a sedan carrying renowned composer John Burroughs (William Mapother) and his pregnant wife and young son. Burroughs is left comatose, his family dead, and Rhoda spends the next four years in jail instead of college.
Post-prison, Rhoda takes a job as a janitor, her golden locks trailing out from under a gray beanie. Her talent for spin first becomes evident when she enters an essay contest to win a trip on an entrepreneur's shuttle to Earth 2. "As a felon, I'm an unlikely candidate for most things, but perhaps not for this," she argues. "Perhaps I'm the most likely." Soon she talks her way into Burroughs's secluded home, claiming to have been sent by a cleaning service. Instead of putting the pieces together that his lovely new maid is responsible for his sorry state, Burroughs, evidently brain-damaged and self-medicating with booze, puts the moves on her. Improbably receptive to this broken-down middle-aged man's advances, the nubile impostor keeps her actual identity mum until plot contrivance forces a confession.
Conceptually, Cahill and Marling are unable to organically incorporate their Big Ideas into the narrative. The filmmakers lazily lay them on top, leaving the exposition of Another Earth's structuring fantasy to a blanket of background voiceover. Everywhere Rhoda goes, there's a radio tuned to the same hip-hop station, whose DJ is prone to Earth 2-related exclamations, or a TV tuned to Earth 2 punditry. "Could we even recognize ourselves?" ponders a male voiceover. "And would we really know ourselves?" This dorm-room stoner stuff masquerading as intellectual inquiry often soundtracks montages of Marling walking around, doing very little other than being beautiful.
Which is to say that Cahill is well aware of his film's true strength. Handheld, grainy and under-lit, Another Earth is routinely so ugly that Marling's extravagant, appropriately otherworldly beauty functions as its most impressive special effect. The film's visual design is centered on the luminosity of her face, which truly lights up every frame it dominates, even as her performance rarely strays from a baseline pose. As screenwriter, Marling gives herself one climactic speech, but rather than risk asking his star to pull off a sustained performance, Cahill, in what scans as a lack of confidence in both his actress and his audience, juliennes it into a montage.
As Another Earth's relationship between the gullible sad sack and the flaxen-haired fraud overtakes its interplanetary premise as the driving force of the film, it becomes clear that Marling's primary — if potentially unconscious — subject is the politics and mechanics of beauty as a tool of manipulation. You could well argue that Marling has written what she knows, but she's also created for herself a character whose undeniable physical appeal overwhelms all other aspects of her personality, in a film so drunk on that appeal that even a suicide attempt is sexualized. Another Earth wants us to believe in the transformative possibilities of second chances. But if it represents a female author's remaking of Hollywood rules, why is it so much like the same old bullshit?