The press materials for In Your Eyes, subject of a surprise online-only release through Joss Whedon’s production company, treat its central premise as a radioactive spoiler. But the movie itself lets the cat out of the bag with great efficiency. As the opening credits roll, the movie cuts between two children: a young girl going sledding, and a young boy horsing around with his miscreant friends at school. When the girl has an accident, the boy gets a jolt; for a few terrifying moments, he sees what she sees and experiences what she experiences.
The movie, penned but not directed by Whedon, rejoins the kids as adults, unaware of each other beyond those brief flashes. Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) is married to Phillip (Mark Feuerstein), a wealthy and controlling doctor; Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) tries to steer clear of the childhood friends who have evidently brought him trouble during the intervening years. But both Rebecca and Dylan continue to experience jolts of each other’s lives—not just visions, but physical and emotional feelings. Their connection intensifies, both in terms of signal strength and conversational intimacy.
Whedon has always been a genre-tinkerer, and the success of The Avengers has allowed him some bolder big-screen experiments. Here, he toys with the ingredients to a romantic melodrama, rather than those of horror or action-fantasy. The movie’s lone fantastical element also allows him to get away with the kind of long dialogue scenes that many romance films prefer to shunt into generic montages. Rebecca and Dylan don’t quip at the level of typical Whedon heroes (the movie even makes a running gag of the way Dylan’s occasional jokes don’t really land with his peer group), but they take to each other with warmth and little flicks of wit. Rather than, say, symptoms of mental instability, the visions and voices in their head become tools of empathy.
Kazan certainly has the eyes for the part. Rebecca isn’t dissimilar to a number of fragile but ultimately resilient heroines the actress has played in other indie movies, but here she brings an offbeat twitchiness to a broader Hollywood-style romance. She and Stahl-David establish a sweet, earnest chemistry—a filmmaking trick, of course, because they share most of their scenes through cross-cutting. That’s how director Brin Hill puts them together visually: not via splitscreen or visual gimmickry, but by simply cutting back and forth. They spend a lot of time together, and the movie spends a lot of time with them. The simplicity works.
That simplicity also has its drawbacks. By focusing so tightly on the two leads and staying within the confines of a romantic drama, the film doesn’t allow for the usual Whedon ensemble. (Most of the supporting characters are mere obstacles.) The filmmakers also smother several scenes with generic emotive rock music, even though the leads’ eyes already do most of that heartfelt work; In Your Eyes ultimately becomes more of its genre than an act of genre transcendence. At its frequent best, though, it provides a potent metaphor for a life-changing relationship, cleverly literalizing the way a new romantic connection can feel like a voice in your head that you never want to stop hearing.