Ruby appears to Calvin in a dream, swathed in light. She turns this way and that, barely visible in the sunlight. Their first meeting is fleeting. All she does is talk to him for a minute or two, and then it’s over and Calvin is hooked.
A former wunderkind, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a neurotic novelist who can’t write, penned up in his labyrinthine Los Feliz house. His only friends are his wry therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) and his charismatic older brother, Harry (Chris Messina) – “You don’t even get laid in your dreams?” As Calvin begins to craft his dream girl, he loses himself in the details of Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). He tells Dr. Rosenthal he’s falling in love with his own fictional character. When she comes to life in his kitchen, furiously whisking eggs and clad only in his t-shirt, Calvin, understandably, thinks he’s gone insane.
As with 500 Days of Summer or Garden State, the quirky indie love-not-love story is a double-edged sword. For every fan of those films comes a swift backlash of twee proportions. Thankfully, Zoe Kazan’s script creates intricate characters rather than one-dimensional concepts (see: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and slyly addresses the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trap her film might have fallen into.
“Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is first and foremost a critic’s term, but it crops up whenever an adorably off-kilter love interest weaves its way into an indie romance. Generally the MPDG is a stock character, an easy-breezy vehicle for the often-brooding man-child protagonist to find his way without ever changing. Though Calvin paints Ruby as a cutesy, “unique” drifter dream, Ruby quickly becomes her own fully flawed self: a real girl.
Ruby Sparks’ first act is exhilarating; a true LA love story complete with artsy coffee shops, neon-lit arcades, and night swimming. Once Ruby starts developing her own mind, needs, and starkly human quirks, Calvin is faced with the reality of his creation. Can he – will he – use his writing to change her? The story then shifts into its strongest element, casting a shadow over the rose-tinted glasses of infatuation.
Kazan is clearly the star of the show, a magnetic force whose range is showcased beautifully in the playing of Ruby. Her first script dives darker than the average fantasy romance, exploring the manipulation and suffocation that comes with finding your “perfect mate”. Wide-eyed and narrow-limbed, Kazan steps into the spotlight after years of impressive supporting roles and holds tight.
Her real-life boyfriend, Dano, is no slouch when it comes to layered performances. His array of film work borders on genius, and no role has been too small for the quiet, intense actor. Though Calvin does indeed have some of that familiar cool fire, Dano displays a physicality and humor that keeps the film light even in its darkest moments.
Ruby Sparks is not just a two-person show for Kazan and Dano. Chris Messina once again plays the every-man with such honesty that he keeps the film (slightly) grounded. As the incredulous and delighted big brother, Messina channels the audience’s reaction to Calvin’s mysterious creation and the consequences of his control over her.
With such varying degrees of euphoria and soft contemplation, Ruby Sparks required the magic touch of directors Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The husband and wife team knew Dano from their first feature, Little Miss Sunshine, and worked extensively with Kazan on the script. Faris and Dayton note that they too fell in love in Los Angeles. From the introduction of Ruby’s reds and purples into Calvin’s neutral life, the whirlwind of their courtship and an extremely powerful climax, that love is palpable in every shot.
Ruby Sparks is an interesting ride, one that is made for the dreamers, the idealists, the creators. In fact, it is as much a commentary on the creative process as it is on the pitfalls of relationships. With seemingly effortless performances, a sharp script, and a fantastical story that refuses to fall into any one genre, Ruby Sparks is a solid first film for Zoe Kazan, and a summer must-see.
Why We Like It: Zoe Kazan’s sharply written first script, toys with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept, fantasy realism, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris return to feature films