AFI Fest 2017: Gemini, by Scott Nye

It’s become somewhat inevitable for American directors behind personal, low-key and -budget films to find a foothold in throwback genre cinema to get any kind of foothold at all. David Robert Mitchell followed his sweet teen film The Myth of the American Sleepover with horror-movie-of-the-moment It Follows; Trey Edward Shults went from Thanksgiving family showdown Krisha to post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night; Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers went to TV after the pitch-perfect Fort Tilden with the mystery series Search Party. Contemporarily updated though they may be, each has an eye towards cinematic movements of the past as a way of signaling respectability.

A similar fate has now befell Aaron Katz, whose extraordinarily modest features Dance Party USA, Quiet City, Cold Weather, and Land Ho! never quite broke through critically or commercially beyond some noted respect. His new film, Gemini, feels like a conscious effort to make something more audience-friendly; not an ignoble goal straight away, but for those familiar with Katz’s work, it won’t come as much of a surprise that its best moments come in early character beats, and it flounders as the plot has to bear more pressure.

Jill (Lola Kirke) is an assistant to, and best friends with, movie star Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). Virtually inseparable, Jill doesn’t much hesitate in letting Heather borrow her gun when she feels unsafe. She quickly comes to regret it when Heather winds up dead, and she’s left the last one who saw her. Now, the circumstances that leave Jill an especially suspicious suspect become a little much, but every mystery needs a little extra push to get going. The problem is that Katz doesn’t build it out much from there – he juices the plot just enough to put Jill on the run, without her feeling particularly in danger at any moment, and the mystery never develops beyond its set-up until its conclusion. Jill spends a lot of time trying to solve the case, but uncovers nothing.

Katz inverted the mystery genre tropes in an amusing way with Cold Weather, where its lead detective spends just as much time trying to pick out the right Sherlock Holmes pipe as he does trying to find his missing ex-girlfriend. Gemini is similarly self-aware, commenting here and there on how the story “fits” into a typical mystery structure, but it never gets lost in a self-referential oblivion nor in the plot itself. Jill just confronts a series of people about what they know and ducks behind corners when she sees the police are near, repeatedly, until the mystery is more or less solved for her.

Kirke and Kravitz’s chemistry is so strong that it’s no wonder Jill risks herself to solve the case. Less clear is why Katz, faced with two actresses as magnetic together as they are (and his own talents for these sorts of two-handers), didn’t restructure his film to keep them together longer. There’s a thread here about feeling abandoned by your best friend – Heather’s murder comes about from a part of her life she doesn’t much share with Jill – but this, too, is underdeveloped. When Jill has a chance to confront herself over this, it’s resolved without much fanfare.

Gemini drew a huge crowd to the Egyptian at AFI Fest this year. I hope a few of them see Quiet City.

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