I was once told by a comedy writer-director that the “joke math” in his show had to add up in order to make the audience laugh and service the story. There you can see how one gag plus one genuinely impactful character beat equals two. Still, even seasoned mathematicians would have a tough time quantifying the perfect formula for “relationship math” in romantic movies, which can become a convoluted equation depending on the kind of story a film is trying to tell.
Plenty of films have sidestepped a more complicated formula in the hopes of coming up with a romance easily solvable for audiences. Pink Wall, the directorial and screenwriting debut from Knightfall actor Tom Cullen, crumples up the formulaic boy meets girl story like it’s an unwanted algebra quiz. The film’s “relationship math” doesn’t aspire to neatly meet an end, but to share a brutally honest, and ultimately satisfying, meditation on contemporary relationship dynamics.
In that sense, numbers initially seem pivotal to Cullen’s story structure. Billed as “six scenes,” “six years,” and “six moments,” Pink Wall is a jumbled collection of snapshots from a six-year relationship between Jenna (Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, who also serves as a producer) and Leon (Transparent’s Jay Duplass). The film, which premiered at SXSW, has an unconventional non-linear narrative that opens in Year Three with Jenna and Leon sharing a pint with Jenna’s family. Throughout a long scene in which Cullen’s camera never strays from Jenna and Leon, the couple is deeply engaged in telling the family stories about their relationship, and all seems fine, until Jenna’s brother jokingly makes a remark the couple takes offense to. The afternoon then unravels, and we move outside with Jenna and Leon, who bicker in a pub courtyard, unspooling previously wound up insecurities and self-loathing, and the tension only breaks when they concede that they don’t really know what they’re doing and share a laugh and a hug.
The unease of Jenna and Leon trading the first of what will be many blows throughout the film subsides when the next scene jumps backwards in time to Year One. Jenna is finding herself at a Welsh university, exploring the spoils and excess of college life with her roommate, when she locks eyes with Leon, a mustached DJ and New Orleans transplant, at a nightclub. Though a relatively uninspiring origin story, it still beats with a thumping pulse as Cullen uses a smaller picture format and tight, grainy shots to transport the audience into the club as a representation of a simpler time in the main characters’ lives. What the film sacrifices in depth of ensemble–the film has little time for anyone other than Jenna and Leon– it makes up for by eliciting emotional responses. At opportune times it shrewdly uses its music choices to anchor a visual rhythm that Cullen has a natural knack for establishing.
As sure-handed with the camera as Cullen is for a first-time director who shot the low-budget film in his Welsch hometown in just nine days, the film can at times be disorienting given its non-linear narrative structure. If that’s by design, then you can throw the “relationship math” out the window from pretty early on. Pink Wall sets you up to feel like problems within a relationship exist on a linear timeline, adding one on top of another until one or both parties can no longer compute. But Jenna and Leon are complex creatures, and the story is structured like memory, thus we’re left to ponder whether fundamental flaws from the outset, or smaller moments of weakness, ultimately foreshadow a couple’s fate.
That the answer is left to interpretation is where Pink Wall becomes something of a rorschach test for viewers. Cullen is grappling with a raw depiction of the intricacies of modern dating, and it’s partially informed by him juggling a successful acting career and the effect that has on his personal relationships. Through Duplass, a darling of the indie scene as both filmmaker and actor, Cullen finds a worthy vessel to self-reflect on professional doubts, personal insecurities, and often cringe-worthy passive aggressive immaturity. In Maslany, who won an Emmy for portraying multiple characters on Orphan Black, he has an actress at home embodying the different phases of Jenna’s life. As a producer on the film and real-life partner to Cullen, it’s clear Maslany’s input balances the love story so neither Jenna nor Leon ever feel like a villain in the relationship.
Some longer than expected narrative detours, including an uncomfortable dinner scene that bites off more gender norms discussions than it can chew, slow the momentum, but Cullen hits all his intended notes in the film’s final third. It culminates in Year Six where Maslany and Duplass put on a gut-wrenching fireworks display of emotional honesty, which you can only get when all pretenses are dropped and two souls are finally, mercifully, fully bare in front of one another.
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias.