‘The Second Sun’ could have shone brighter

Aiming to celebrate the human ability to survive even the most horrific of events, The Second Sun has an honorable theme. But though director Jennifer Gelfer succeeds in showing glimpses of the miracles life holds if looked at carefully, the quality of narration is too uneven to give full justice to the remarkable plot. (MJJ: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Malin J. Jornvi

The Second Sun, like many other films and TV-series released in the last few years, takes place in New York City. And like Mad Men or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, this story is put in the postwar 1950s. The Second Sun thus opens with credits running in front of the classic black and white images of skyscrapers and bridges, set to the typical jazz-inspired tunes. But this is also basically all the visual and musical information given during the 73 minutes running time. Instead, director Jennifer Gelfer’s first full-length picture is a conversation-driven piece which mainly consists in the dialogue between the two main characters Max (John Buffalo Mailer) and Joy (Eden Epstein).

Max and Joy meet one chilly night at an anonymous bar somewhere in the City. Though they have bumped into each other before at Max’s downtown pastry shop, they are still essentially strangers. Now Max, who has been dreaming about seeing Joy again ever since, will not miss out on his unbelievable luck and opportunity to charm. They begin to drink, smoke – and talk.

The talkative plot hints to the by now classic “kitchen sink drama.” But it is refreshing that here the female character development is as complex as that of the male. Joy and Max are equally intricate individuals with correspondingly well-hidden secrets that are revealed to each other, and to the audience, at an even pace. In addition to the equal focus, writer James Patrick Nelson has taken good care to add quite a few feminist statements. To its benefit, The Second Sun balances the modern treatment in complexity with maintaining the midcentury storytelling style in its rather real-time development. Because although some flashbacks, some fast-forwards, and certain dream sequences, the major part of the story takes place in one night. And this is perhaps also the film’s largest reward: The Second Sun takes its time. With a nowadays quite rare patience, or perhaps resistance to speeding up the action, this movie enjoys and savors all that which can happen in the attraction between two strangers. It especially lingers in those charged moments of testing each other out, of playfully teasing the initial lure to see if the night will end elsewhere from where it started.

The focus on dialogue is complemented with a concentrated setting: apart from some crucial memory scenes, the scenery is limited to the insides of a New York City bar and a New York City apartment. The minimal scope of backdrop with a distinct switch midway through brings my mind to theater. And after some research my initial hunch turns out to be correct: The Second Sun is based on a play. To a large extent, this piece of knowledge comes as a relief because this also explains the acting. The love couple played by John Buffalo Mailer and Eden Epstein has a few moments of chemistry but unfortunately, more often, forced interaction and noticeable rendering of lines. In addition, the overexplicit mimicry of the former becomes unnerving and the inexperience of the latter shines through in the stiffness of movements and unnaturalness in intonation. In The Second Sun, the acting often looks and sounds like acting, and this is a problem the camera is way more unforgiving of than the stage.

The acting is uneven, and so are other elements of the narration. For example, almost the entire movie is filmed with a soft focus lens that gives a sought-after dreamlike quality, but this at times becomes directly distracting, and frankly slightly nauseating, as all straight lines becomes curved at the edges. However, the previously mentioned dream sequences – which really are wonderful and arguably the gems of the whole movie – are part of the few scenes which are not filmed with soft focus. It is also in these segments that the music soundtrack is given full play and the mingling of jazz beats and orchestra strokes gets to mimic the emotional development happening on screen. This sharply contrasts Max’s repeated distress to a particular tune in the “reality” of the bar, a reaction which is never explained. The artistic choices here made by Gelfer in use of cinematography and musical score remain mysteries to me.

In The Second Sun certain elements are left unexplained, while others are extensively elaborated in the dialogue. This, together with especially the acting, gives The Second Sun an uneven impression. Yet, the theme of the possibility of a miraculous turn of events in the midst of darkness is important and certain details of the movie are definitely worth dwelling on even after having finished it. For one, that people who have passed on are not gone but “dancing in the streets” and surrounding us in the air that we breathe are doubtless beautiful, and useful, images for those in grief. Another is the film’s final dedication to a certain soulmate that gives the story a personal touch which I wish we could have seen more of from the start. The Second Sun thus holds a promise of future works that with more confidence and craft likely will succeed better in showing at the miracles of life that really are all around us.

© Malin J. Jornvi (8/17/19) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: PMKBNC

Q: Does The Second Sun pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No.

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