Timothée Chalamet and Kiernan Shipka are two of the best actors of their generation. The camera can hold on their faces for an indefinite amount of time and be constantly rewarded. Though both got their start on television, they are quickly proving to be major forces on the big screen. Few recent performances have traumatized me as much as Shipka’s galvanizing turn in Osgood Perkins’ thriller, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” With masterful subtlety, she suggests the malicious presence gradually overtaking and empowering her meek character. Perkins had initially considered applying satanic prosthetics to her face but eventually decided against it, realizing that they would’ve taken away from Shipka’s bone-chilling expressions. When I saw Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age romance, “Call Me by Your Name,” I was similarly awed by Chalamet’s portrayal of a 17-year-old blindsided by his attraction to an older man. Like Shipka, Chalamet can simultaneously exude youthful vulnerability and maturity well beyond his years. In one of the greatest final shots I’ve ever seen, Chalamet sits by a fire—his tear-streaked face illuminated by the warmth of past memories—as snowflakes trickle down in the distance. No narration or inner monologue is necessary, since Chalamet transports us so entirely into his character’s emotional state that we share his heartache long after the credits have rolled. If Chalamet becomes the youngest actor to earn the Best Actor Oscar next March, his victory will have been entirely earned.
The fact that Shipka and Chalamet play siblings in 2015’s underrated indie drama, “One & Two,” would alone make the picture—currently available for streaming on Netflix—worth a look. Yet the film is interesting for a multitude of reasons. It marks the solo directorial effort of Andrew Droz Palermo, an accomplished cinematographer who has lensed such features as Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher,” the documentary “Rich Hill” (which he co-directed with Tracy Droz Tragos) and most recently, David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.” There are shots of Shipka and Chalamet frocking through a field, their white clothes illuminated by the pale sunlight, that reminded me of the deceased protagonist in Lowery’s film, wandering back home while covered in a nondescript bed sheet. Whereas that movie’s titular apparition watched helplessly as the world morphed around him, jumping back and forth in time without warning, the siblings in “One & Two” have control over their supernatural abilities, though they also exist outside the mortal boundaries of time and space. Zac (Chalamet) and Eva (Shipka) can teleport their bodies across incremental distances, snapping in and out of desired locations with such intensity that one can sense the molecules rippling around them. Palermo and his DP, Autumn Durald, ground their characters’ environment in stark realism, while somehow making the special effects, achieved on a modest budget, remarkably seamless.
What makes the story, co-scripted by Palermo and Neima Shahdadi, so intriguing is its inherent irony. Zac and Eva may be blessed with the freedom of movement, but they are held on a very tight leash. Generations of their ancestors have lived on the same sprawling acreage of land, separated from the modern world by a towering wall too formidable for even these extraordinary kids to scale. Their father, Daniel (Grant Bowler), is a monstrous piece of work, clinging to extreme methods of discipline in order to burden his children with unearned guilt. When Eva dreams aloud about meeting new people and seeing other places, Zac claims that he has everything he’d ever want at home. He’s been conditioned to believe that his daily chores provide him with all the fulfillment he needs, but it isn’t long until his old man starts to push him over the edge. Fueled by his superstitious belief that Zac and Eva’s abilities could be the result of black magic, Daniel punishes them severely for disobeying his rule against playing outside after bedtime (scheduled prior to sunset, by the way). After his wife, Elizabeth (a compassionate Elizabeth Reaser), succumbs to suffocating spasms—which began inflicting her around the time she gave birth to Eva—Daniel resorts to drastic measures to cast out the forces threatening to upend his way of life. He knocks his daughter unconscious and sends her floating down a river in a boat, not unlike Moses (her name, Eva, is appropriately reminiscent of Eve, since she instills curiosity in Zac of the world residing far beyond their farm).
There are shades here of Joachim Trier’s “Thelma,” another powerful exploration of religious repression and the debilitating effect it can have on one’s identity. In that picture, a young woman discovers that her epileptic seizures were the result of ignorance enforced by her parents. She has an ability similar to that of Zac and Eva—she can teleport people from one place to another when her emotions are heightened—but rather than teach her how to use these powers constructively, her father refuses to inform her about them. He relies on the fear of God and his exhaustive parental monitoring to keep her in line, yet his plans will inevitably prove to be as futile as those of Daniel. For a considerable portion of its swift 90-minute running time, “One & Two” is a wrenching portrait of abuse and how it can psychologically confine us, even when we possess the power to escape. Having been forced to spend an entire night pinned face-first to a wall, Zac refuses to go against his father’s orders, turning down Eva’s routine invitation to join her for a swim. “It’s not worth it,” he replies, “We have to do what he says.” Prior to unleashing his wrath on Eva, Daniel locks Zac in a closet, leaving his son to howl furiously in the dark. Since the rules of their teleportation are left ambiguous, I was mystified by why Zac chose to remain there. Couldn’t his powers help him escape? Perhaps not, or perhaps the fear of teleporting in his father’s presence is what kept him trapped there. In either case, Daniel is clearly protecting his own self-hatred onto his kids. If his wife had received the medical treatment she needed, she may not have perished.
Neither of the fathers in “Thelma” and “One & Two” seem to realize that their zealotry is the true source of evil plunging their families into disarray. After he sends Eva into a society that defies her comprehension at every turn, Daniel informs Zac that he killed her, and that the boy must put the memory of his sister to rest. This lie is nearly as unspeakable as an actual homicide, causing rage to swell inside Zac like never before. There’s another indelible shot here of Chalamet seated in front of a fire, holding a poker as if planning to bludgeon Daniel with it at any moment. As Zac finally finds his voice to revolt against his father, his words begin as the merest whisper, building fiercely to a volcanic pitch before he performs the ultimate act of rebellion. Depriving his children of one another in a sin for which Daniel will not be forgiven. The telekinetic bond that exists between the siblings serves as their inner compass, and it provides Eva with comfort amidst her baffling odyssey on the other side of the wall. It’s liberating to see her teleporting across streets and through windows, even as she lacks a sense of direction. When she spends the night at a halfway house for youth, Eva is asked to list her family members. While keeping her emotions guarded, Shipka brilliantly hints at them as she delivers the following eight words: “My brother [she states this matter-of-factly, her eyes cast downward] and my father [her eyes widen as she nearly shudders] and my mother [she stifles a sob].” These are the sort of nuances that could easily slip past the gaze of a passive observer, but to a lover of great acting, they are everything.
Though the near-entirety of the film is scored by Nathan Halpern, the composer behind Nanfu Wang’s indispensable documentaries “Hooligan Sparrow” and “I Am Another You,” Palermo decides to conclude “One & Two” with the song “Outro” by M83. It’s a striking choice, considering that it was memorably used in the trailer for the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” an audacious epic about the malleability of identity and the vitality of change. Palermo’s film is, in essence, about a dying way of life that requires the world to be shut out in order for it to be maintained. For Zac and Eva, jumping the wall is akin to breaking out of a fundamentalist trap. “I’m the king of my own land / Facing tempests of dust I’ll fight to the end” are the lyrics we hear in the film’s final moments, as the siblings’ past is cleansed with fire (again, not unlike in “Thelma”). When we are no longer ashamed to embrace the gifts we have been endowed with from birth, we are capable of anything. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new,” says Chalamet’s dad toward the end of “Call Me by Your Name.” “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!” Now that is some fatherly wisdom worth heeding.