Charismatic leads and strong visuals can easily mask weak dialogue and acting. Earlier this year, Aziz Ansari made headlines for Master of None’s visual style, most notably the black and white Season Two premiere, “The Thief,” inspired by Italian Neorealism. With all due respect to Ansari’s creative vision, the series does have moments when characters are clearly reciting dialogue back and forth, like a rehearsal. Hollywood in Rome. The same issue plagues Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan’s Bokeh, as the directors/screenwriters mistake clever, philosophical dialogue for profound moments. Hollywood in Iceland.
A young couple arrives in beautiful Reykjavík. Riley (Matt O’Leary) carries a Rolleiflex camera, suggesting that he understands the concept of “bokeh” — the beauty of blurred imagery. He’s got a line for every moment, droppin’ knowledge for his “baby,” Jenai, played by Maika Monroe (It Follows). The opening sequence feels lively and energetic. Riley symbolizes the curious, potentially obnoxious traveler, while Jenai smiles and takes in the unique experience. The chemistry feels natural. The picture-in-picture visuals work. The next morning, everybody disappears. It’s The Leftovers minus the chainsmokers, angry locals and cryptic dialogue. Riley and Jenai need each other more than ever.
After Bokeh’s inciting incident, the leads figuratively transform into Saturday Night Live’s “Two A-Holes,” played by Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig. Riley and Jenai can’t find any humans whatsoever, but they have each other for existential and highly annoying conversations. “We need a vantage point,” Riley says, “a world view.” It’s almost like he’s speaking to the viewer and not his girlfriend. Even during the Apocalypse, Riley mansplains. The first act goes something like this: “Baby, (clever line about life),” and repeat. “First lattes, and then the world.” Riley has good intentions, but his quips fall flat. They’d probably work better at The Coffee Bean, Hollywood and Orange.
Bokeh ultimately finds its sweet spot. The filmmakers drop geothermal jokes for character tension and narrative atmosphere. One could even make the argument that Riley’s a-hole personality sets the tone for the film’s best moments. The couple makes unique discoveries, literally and figuratively, which heavily alters their relationship dynamic, leading Jenai to speak out and stand up for herself. When Riley begins one of his philosophical diatribes, Jenai reminds of their water crisis. Due to her boyfriend’s constant rambles, she looks inward, searching for her place in the new world. In the second half, Bokeh remains steeped in existentialism, but it’s less contrived and more organic, with Keegan DeWitt’s evocative score and Joe Lindsay’s cinematography setting the mood.
Both Monroe and O’Leary successfully convey deep sorrow. Annoying as Riley may be, he remains mostly calm and connected to nature; he’s a sympathetic character. But Riley looks for surrounding beauty when Jenai needs him most. She views the world differently than her significant other, relying more on instincts than universal direction. In a normal setting, the personality differences wouldn’t necessarily destroy the relationship. In Bokeh, however, Jenai’s sense of isolation — both physical and emotional — leads her astray. The filmmakers capture the characters’ despair and clearly have a strong sense of visual contrasts, but they struggle with dialogue — they get too cute. Riley is the weak link. When it seems like Orthwein and Sullivan might pull back with leading statements, they have Riley fully explain the moral of his metaphorical anecdotes. Jenai may not care, but many viewers probably will.
On the surface, Bokeh seems like a relatable film. There’s value to be found for curious loners or social butterflies that struggle by themselves. But the character dialogue feels distinctly more Hollywood than Indie.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.