All romance movies sink or swim based on whether or not the audience is invested in the central relationship. That’s where Elephants directs most of its effort and screen time: getting us to understand and sympathize with its two leads. The result is an uncluttered film that shines with subtle charm.
Elephants follows two twentysomething former lovers, Lee (Luca Malacrino) and Kate (Allison Blaize), who can’t decide whether they want to maintain their volatile relationship or grow up and get real… or if those two options are necessarily in conflict with each other.
The two romantic leads are initially presented as broad character types; a frazzled over-achiever (Kate) and a rootless but spirited ex-con (Lee). When Lee shows up at Kate’s door after a stint behind bars, it’s immediately clear that the remnants of a passionate relationship still lurk just below the surface in each of them.
As the rekindled relationship progresses, the film peels back its pretenses to reveal the flaws and complexities of each character. Addiction issues, irresponsible tendencies, impulsive decisions, insecure reactions. Kate and Lee become more alive and more fully drawn as they draw the best and worst out of each other, and the performances become more absorbing with each development.
Writer/director Alex Hanno allocates plenty of screen time to letting Lee and Kate do little more than share intimate moments. Given the space to breathe, we become comfortable with them. Small, possibly-unscripted moments help foster a natural momentum for the relationship and our investment in it.
Kate and Lee gradually discover how little they have in common aside from a passionate attraction to each other and the past. They ache to recreate the time they shared when they were younger, which is to say, less accountable, less burdened, less aware of their flaws and the damaged caused by them. These relatable desires help anchor our empathy.
The titular animal is present throughout Elephants in various forms. Images of it feature in art in the background and in frequent thoughtful “fun fact” notes left by Lee. Likely the motif is meant to invoke the animal’s connection to memory, and by extension, the past. Kate and Lee can’t forget the past; they are tied to it, like many who have lingered too long in something they knew was unhealthy.
The external obstacles they face are simple catalysts to ignite conflict. There’s an uptight, disapproving sister (endowed with unanticipated depth by Lauren Kelly); the introduction of a new pet; a “dinner with the boss” plot device to provide midpoint tension. The film’s not subverting any genre expectations, but it is swiftly executing the trials of relationship drama with stakes that work in its narrative.
The thing that’s missing here is a larger contingent of hope. We’re watching a relationship spiral out of control; one that we intuitively feel is doomed. Regardless of the conclusion, we would have benefited from a clearer vision of what lasting happiness is for these characters. While we want them to succeed, we’re not fully sure what success would look like.
Elephants is most successful in the cinematic intangibles. Quiet, natural moments, sincere performances, and clean, confident direction help an unassuming movie build to an unexpectedly resonant crescendo that might stick with you long after watching.