As the 24-hour news cycle pummels us with constant stories of social and political unrest, the line between modern society and fictional dystopia can seem blurry. Art continues to imitate life, and filmmaker Takashi Doscher is throwing his hat into the sociopolitical sci-fi ring with “Only,” a Tribeca Film Festival premiere about sexist violence.
Freida Pinto and Leslie Odom Jr. play Eva and Will, a couple in a world overrun by a deadly, incurable illness. Two timelines—the couple in flashback, days 1 through 400 of the crisis, and the couple at present, from day 400 on—interweave to flesh out the film’s world. This grim reality is a doozy, where toxic ash from a rare comet (don’t worry about it) fatally infects the female population. The few women still living have either been rounded up and put in government research labs, or, like Eva, they’re on the lam. With bloodthirsty men eager to cash in on the government’s $2-million-dollar reward for “live American females,” it’s a treacherous time to rock XX chromosomes. And Eva just got the virus.
This is an idea with so much potential. It’s the kind of thing Margaret Atwood has staked an entire literary legacy on, with “The Handmaid’s Tale” her most salient and comparable example. Moments in “Only” ring particularly Atwood-ian, from the gun-seller who talks about the best rifle with which to aim for a woman’s ovaries to intriguing instances of (trans)gender performance. But sadly, it seems Doscher merely copped the Cliff Notes for “Handmaid’s Tale,” and gave it a superficial skim read as “Only” unfortunately quickly spirals into a misguidedly puzzling, patriarchal mess.
You might assume that “Only” focuses wholly on Eva as she lives out her final days. You would be wrong. Early on in the film, when sneaking out to buy groceries, Will instructs Eva not to speak, lest her feminine voice give her away. When she arouses the suspicion of the shop owner by staring longingly at tampons (relatable!), Will screams at her for not being more discreet. This sequence is representative of the film overall. As Eva remains silent and inscrutable for 90% of its duration, the film builds its emotional foundation on Will’s pain. To say this is troubling would be an understatement, as Will acts more like her captor than her boyfriend, confining her in an endless cycle of quarantine “for her own protection.” Whenever she steps out of line, he yells at her. The paltry romance between them reads more like Stockholm Syndrome than love.
Will’s patriarchal surveillance prison completely saps Eva of a personality—even her attempts to connect with other women in a survivors’ chat room are condemned. Yet the film excuses his behavior again and again, as he blubbers about how scared he is for Eva and how desperate he is to protect her. Eva never voices her fears even though she is slowly dying throughout the film. Her pain is not her own, it is Will’s. Doscher calls this, a story of one imprisoned woman who barely speaks to another woman throughout, a “female-centered film.” What he means is that this is a film that features women suffering. And to tell a story of female suffering without lending proper interiority to the narrative’s one female character is, at best, callous.
The film is ambitious in scope and melds sci-fi and low-budget drama seamlessly Leslie Odom Jr. gives an anguished, heartfelt performance as Will. But its choices overall are baffling given the would-be intentions and these virtues ultimately don’t eclipse the film’s fatal flaw: a reckless lack of interest in its purported subject material. Until Doscher attends the Alex Garland School for Responsible Sci-Fi Movies About Women, he might want to admire the sociopolitical angle from afar and take lots of notes. As it stands, this movie is about as pro-woman as “Beauty and the Beast.” [D]