While it’s true that nobody makes a film entirely alone, some movies are closer to being a one-person operation than others. That can be good or bad. Artists love having total creative freedom. But the ones most likely to get it are young, inexperienced filmmakers producing do-it-yourself indie features — and they’re often the very people who could benefit most from having some guidance, some reining-in, someone to tell them no. The rejection files of every film festival are crowded with movies made by people who ought to have gotten some outside perspective.
So when it works, it’s worth talking about, even celebrating. “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” written, directed, and edited by Terence Nance, is a good example of a single-minded vision being executed with insight and skill. Nance tells a personal story, yet mostly avoids the navel-gazing pitfalls that turn many such projects into vain affairs that should have remained in the filmmakers’ diaries. With “An Oversimplification,” he rightly supposes that his experience, while personal, is relatable to a general audience.
And he tells it with such creativity and confidence! The film is framed as a hypothetical question: “How would you feel?” A narrator with a pleasing, stentorian voice describes a scenario that we infer comes from Nance’s life. You’re young and single in New York. You come home from a long, exhausting day at work. You’ve been looking forward to casually hanging out tonight with a platonic lady friend. Indeed, the anticipation of this simple evening is what has kept you motivated all day. But now she calls you: she can’t come over tonight after all.
Nance uses this seemingly insignificant event — disappointing in the moment but hardly earth-shattering — to explore the roots of his feelings. The narrator repeats the scenario several times, each time adding new details and context. You’re kind of in love with this girl, and your platonic relationship has occasionally tilted toward romance without ever quite tipping over into it. You’re unsure whether she has any idea how you feel, and you’ve never dared to tell her. During your friendship, you’ve avoided asking many questions about her romantic relationships, lest you find out something you don’t want to hear.
To convey all of this visually, Nance uses re-creations (featuring himself and the woman in question, Namik Minter), along with several different styles of animation — everything from line drawings to water colors to stop-motion photography. He includes documentary footage of an incident in 2006, when he screened a short film he’d made on the same subject, presented it as fiction, and then dealt with the fallout of the woman recognizing their friendship on the screen. This is a movie about a filmmaker whose film about his relationship complicated the relationship and inspired another movie. At one point the woman is given a chance to offer her rebuttal, and we see a “trailer” for the film she supposedly made in response. (It’s called “Subtext.”)
How much of this is genuine and how much is fakery, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. What matters, and what’s most prominently on display, is Nance’s gift for introspection, his ability to extrapolate his experiences into something universal. The narration is frequently poetic and lyrical, the musical score (by Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison) warm and evocative.
The tangent about other women Nance has been in love with doesn’t feel relevant to the main subject — which is unfortunate and strange, since it probably is relevant. Nance just doesn’t succeed in making it work within the film, though it does contribute to some of the more beautifully animated flights of fancy. It’s the closest the movie comes to being unduly self-indulgent. Otherwise, it’s an artistic but unpretentious examination of young love, with all its uncertainties and mini-tragedies. I have no doubt it’s exactly the movie Nance wanted to make, and it benefits from his singularity of vision.
B (1 hr., 25 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.