[This is a re-post of my Equals review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in limited release today.]
If you like emotional gut punches, filmmaker Drake Doremus is your guy. With his past two movies Like Crazy and Breathe In, the director showcased his knack for tapping into intimacy on a base human level. With his new film, Equals, Doremus broadens his canvas and moves into an entirely different genre—sci-fi—but in doing so is able to maintain his strong handle on emotional intimacy, resulting in a film that’s yet another emotional gut punch anchored by a pair of powerful performances from Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult.
Scripted by Nathan Parker, the film takes place in a dystopian future in which all emotions have been banished, with a population that is entirely devoid of feelings. Past generations nearly destroyed the earth through war and violence, wiping out all but a tiny sliver of the world’s population, so the thinking is that without emotions, the world can avoid such an event repeating. However, the process isn’t perfect—an illness called SOS (“switched-on-syndrome”) occurs in certain people and is treated like a sort of cancer. Those diagnosed with SOS take a regular inhibitor pill, but after they reach Stage 4, their prognosis almost always leads to being interred at the Containment Den, where they’re encouraged to commit suicide or subjected to electroshock therapy.
Stewart and Hoult play Nia and Silas, a pair of colleagues who work at the science journal Atmos. When Silas is diagnosed with early stage SOS, he begins to suspect that Nia has it too. Indeed, Nia is what’s known as a Hider (ie. someone who hides the fact that they have SOS), but as Silas develops a crush on Nia and subsequently confronts her, the two strike up an intense and passionate—and secret—relationship that puts them both in grave danger.
But while this all may sound very “sci-fi” and plot-driven, the film is grounded by a pair of committed, intense and intensely moving performances by Stewart and Hoult. It’s frustrating to think that Stewart is considered an “underrated” actress—she’s more than proved her talent over the years and she’s simply terrific in this film. There’s a subtlety to her performance that works brilliantly opposite Hoult’s arc, as we see Silas “awaken” with SOS and follow his story accordingly, whereas Nia has been living with full emotions for over a year. While the film is told mostly through Silas’ point of view, Nia’s story is more devastating because when the relationship blooms, we understand she’s been yearning for any sort of human connection for a very long time.
Again it’s the intimacy that really pulls the viewer in, and Stewart and Hoult work beautifully together, charting this relationship through its ups and downs in a way that’s both highly personal and universal. There’s a sequence in which Nia and Silas are simply laying on the ground talking to one another quietly that almost feels like you’re intruding as a viewer, but at the same time that level of intimacy is so relatable that you can’t help but be moved. Stewart and Hoult’s chemistry is electric and explosive, with the palpable connection between the two nearly seeping off the screen, and Hoult’s vulnerable performance is especially heart-wrenching as the relationship progresses.
While the canvas for Equals is indeed large, Doremus always maintains a razor sharp focus on character. The film’s scale is exponentially bigger than that of his other features, but the filmmaker handles the transition with ease. Cold, stark environments surround Nia and Silas, reinforcing the distance between everyone living in this dystopian future, but as the two begin to form a relationship, color starts to seep into the frame in fascinating, beautiful ways. Cinematographer John Guleserian (who also shot Doremus’ other features) does gorgeously effective work marrying these futuristic landscapes with the more intimate shots of Nia and Silas.
Some story beats in the latter half of the script are a bit obvious and not quite as surprising as the film thinks they are, and supporting turns by Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver are disappointingly short on screen time, but regardless the emotional impact of the central duo remains strong. While this is a movie about two star-crossed lovers living in a futuristic dystopia, at heart it’s really a story about every relationship in existence.
We, as human beings, are inherently lonely. Humanity hinges on connection to other humans, and not just any kind of contact—there’s nothing like a deep, intimate relationship to remind us what it is to be human, and why we yearn to love and be loved. It’s not easy, and it hurts, but that’s life, and that’s what it is to be alive. Doremus taps into this base human need effortlessly in Equals by first showing us what life is like without emotion (ie. connection), then chronicling intimacy in progress with the burgeoning relationship of Nia and Silas. And through Stewart and Hoult’s powerful performances, Doremus’ delicate direction, and some stunning visuals, Equals speaks to human relationships in a way that’s intimately familiar, romantic, and, yes, emotionally gut-punching.