I'm rooting for Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, I really am. For those not from Georgetown, Marling and Batmanglij are Hoya alumni who have gotten a big break in the independent film scene with two Sundance breakout hits, 2011's "Sound of My Voice" and this year's "The East". It's cool to have recent alumni from my school, not traditionally known for producing big creative types in the entertainment industry (though we are responsible for Mitch Hurwitz and, indirectly, Arrested Development—you're welcome), making waves in the film industry.
I also happen to be in the lucky position of going to Georgetown while these young filmmakers are gaining ground. Two years ago, I got to attend an advance screening of "Sound of My Voice" followed by a Q&A with Marling, Batmanglij, and classmate Mike Cahill. Not only have I had the opportunity to hear them speak very personally and openly about their experiences making short films at Georgetown and how they ended up on the path to Sundance stardom (Zal's journey was a pretty straightforward case of going to film school to improve his directing chops and making progressively larger-scale films with regularity since graduating Georgetown; Brit on the other hand, after graduating as valedictorian of her class, bowed out of a lucrative position at Goldman-Sachs to pursue acting and screenwriting), but I've also been able to connect with them on the level of our shared Georgetown experiences. I know the professors they had in their screenwriting classes, I currently run the television studio/film club that Brit Marling used to preside over, etc etc. I've gotten invested in these kids' careers as filmmakers, and I'm pulling for them to succeed and make it big—without sacrificing their Georgetown-education-grounded convictions...more on that later.
All that being said, they've still got a long ways to go.
To give credit where credit is due: "The East" is a superior piece of filmmaking to the admittedly zero-budget but inexcusably limpid "Sound of My Voice" (which has its fans, to be fair), and I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. Hence why I'm writing about it at such great length now. Given a larger budget to work with and actors who have actually had some training, Batmanglij proves that he has the chops to make an engaging, and even artistic thriller. There are plenty of moments of clever filmmaking in "The East" and more than a few shot compositions that left me thoroughly impressed. Batmanglij sells his brand of L.L. Bean anarchy so confidently that you're willing to run with the story of a spy (Marling) tasked with infiltrating an eco-terrorist group to thwart them from executing "jams" against major corporations and humor the film when it takes a turn into the wonky. As it happens though, much of the first half of the film devolves into camp, most of it unintentional, all of it thoroughly amusing (need to add a little extra drama to a scene? just have the villainous matriarch deliver a key line of dialogue right before hopping into a helicopter dressed as though she's off to the Oscars!).
Batmanglij and Marling take their ideas seriously, which makes the inherent silliness of such scenes as a table of straightjacket clad activists spoonfeeding each other cold soup as a show of solidarity and selflessness stand out more than it might have otherwise. Yet the film ends with a more sober final act that eschews humor (mostly) in order to get to the root of the filmmakers' message. What that message is isn't entirely clear—Marling's character does some alliance-hopping in short order before just as quickly breaking off on her own path to pursue a counter-corporatism plan of her own, regrettably only glossed over in montage during the credits. Moreover, the clever moments feel clever; you can just picture Batmanglij and Marling sitting around the kitchen table and having an "OOOH, that would be awesome!" moment when contriving the parallel between a scene where Marling feels around the innards of a deceased deer with a later scene where she has the same semi-spiritual experience fishing out a bullet out of an unconscious human being's body. Sometimes the ideas are all that; usually they're worth only an "oh, that was kind of cool" and nothing else. A stronger screenplay would definitely lend itself to the talent on display here, which is why I'm sincerely hoping that Batmanglij and Marling either team up with a more seasoned writer for their next project or give the wheel to another screenwriter entirely.
That second option wouldn't be entirely desirable though. What these Hoyas lack for in narrative building they make up for in character development. The members of The East are pretty well-realized, even if most of them don't have the chance to do much beyond say a few words here and dance around a few bonfires there. Their characters feel like actual people as opposed to, well, characters in a movie. Even when their motivations and actions verge on the wonky, it's a believable wonkiness, inasmuch as I can see some qualities of my Georgetown classmates on display here. Batmanglij and Marling's commitment to social justice is going on full throttle here, and while I usually decry how the film program at Georgetown tries to bludgeon this buzzword into cinema at the expense of cinema, I appreciate and commend filmmaking efforts that manage to strike a healthy balance between social justice and artistic expression. Zal and Brit have gotten that much under control; now I'd like to see them polish their writing and make something that can be enjoyed as great cinema instead of as indie-crowd camp. (But hey, camp's great every once in a while!)
NB: I originally conceived of this post as me just telling you excitedly about all the unintentionally hilarious parts of this movie, but realizing that you'd be better off just seeing it for yourself I decided to go with something more substantive instead. Though I just know my description of that spoon-feeding-ritual scene makes you want to run out and go see this right now.