The Pining: An ex-con hopes to start over on a newly discovered planet.
The Pining: An ex-con hopes to start over on a newly discovered planet.

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Her life was full of promise. When we first meet Rhoda, she’s just graduated from high school and is on her way to MIT to study astrophysics. She is brilliant, she is beautiful, and she is partying. She gets into a car, high on life and presumably other things, and soon becomes distracted by some big news blaring from the radio: Scientists have discovered another planet, a blue dot next to the moon that they’re calling Earth 2. Rhoda sticks her head out the driver’s side window. You know this won’t end well.

Still, the inevitable accident is a shock, horrifying and gut-wrenching in its fierceness and its aftermath. Four years later, we see Rhoda (newcomer Brit Marling) finishing not college but a prison sentence. She moves into her old room at her parents’ house but—being decorated with planets and photos of the solar system, reminders of the hotshot she once was—it’s too much for her. So Rhoda moves into the attic, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She seeks out a job in which she must use her hands instead of her brain, self-flagellatingly working as a high-school janitor while at night Googling the man whose life she ruined in that car crash. But there’s also something a bit more enticing online, in the form of an essay contest for a seat to travel to Earth 2, which may be more than just another planet—it’s looking like a parallel universe. Rocketing up there seems like Rhoda’s only possible escape.

Co-written by Marling and director Mike Cahill, both Georgetown University grads, Another Earth is quiet, meditative, and a little creepy. It’s more drama than sci-fi, but there’s just enough Twilight Zone to keep the bathos palatable. It sounds like something dreamed up in a dorm room—Dude, what if there were another world that was, like, just like ours?—but the execution is remarkably assured for a couple of newbies. Like Rhoda’s life, the film has little decoration. Music is used sparingly while Rhoda dourly goes about her day-to-day, frequently staring up into the sky. It’d all be be quite dull if it weren’t for Marling, who’s got a veteran’s presence and beauty, and makes you desperate to know what Rhoda will do next.

Some of the things she does, however, will leave you wishing you could slash the script with a bold red marker. Rhoda insinuates herself into the life of the man whose car she wrecked (William Mapother), posing as a cleaning lady when she visits him to confess but quickly losing her nerve. And the trajectory of their initially brusque relationship is the most egregious of clichés, culminating in a supremely uncomfortable moment in which you silently beg Rhoda, don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It’d all be too unforgivably amateurish if the story didn’t then go Serling once again, refocusing on the mission to Earth 2. Cahill and Marling close Another Earth on just the right, abrupt note, interrupting your nausea with a little chill.