Taking its name from an obscure Hanshan poem, Noah Buschel’s latest effort finds itself firmly grounded in an understanding of/fascination with the dramatic possibilities of the interplay between lonely people. One, a damaged woman incapable of leaving her apartment owing to a debilitating case of stage fright, spends her days eking out a fairly Spartan existence, barely scraping by on the residuals of her past work. The other, presumably the only person she’s allowed into her apartment in a very long while, is an altogether less damaged man who earns a living as a plumber while moonlighting as a quasi free jazz saxophonist. Grounding the action squarely in the Actress’s (Marin Ireland) apartment, Buschel is free to slowly unfold the erratic and unlikely connection that forms between her and her Plumber (Paul Sparks).
Buschel introduces and familiarizes Ireland’s character by way of a series of methodical and quotidian rituals. Seemingly in a perpetually dull holding pattern, Ireland literally never leaves her apartment, ordering take-out and having her groceries delivered to her modestly furnished and thoroughly drab Manhattan flat. Buschel uses these early scenes to as much benefit as possible, creating a kind of pathetic and unnervingly benign main character whose body language tells as much of the meaningful bits of her story as any dialogue. You know that bit about showing vs. telling in filmmaking? Well, Buschel surely does, and his work with Sparrows Dance bears that out pretty explicitly.
The occasion of Paul Sparks’s entrance to Ms. Ireland’s apartment is as mundane as the rest of her uneventful existence — bad plumbing in old buildings usually requires the help of a professional. But when Sparks enters the room it’s as if some switch somewhere’s been tripped. The man radiates energy and a sincere yet unsentimental enthusiasm at being and talking with another person. The natural contrast between Sparks’s completely open and exploratory energy and Ireland’s obvious tightly-closed reaction to it is intriguing to be sure, but what’s more intriguing than that is the way Buschel’s camera begins to mirror the emotional content of these two characters. As a bond begins to form between them, things become more and more visually and texturally experimental.
As Buschel would have it, Sparks likes Ireland because he likes her, and there’s no attempt made to tease out any deeper meaning than that. The knee-jerk reaction when examining any relationship between a severely troubled person and a relatively sane will always arrive at exploitation, and the method the filmmakers use to dissuade this natural accusation is ingenious and altogether simple. Far from portraying Ireland as attractive to Sparks because of her damage and vulnerability, if anything it’s in spite of those characteristics that her finds her interesting beyond any obvious physical attraction. In turn, Ireland’s interest in Sparks appears to grow in direct relation to how little he treats her like a victim, him having more faith in her than she obviously has in herself.
Sparrows Dance can’t help but delight in the love it has for its characters, and the result is a weird mix of joy and pain, embodied most impressively by Ms. Ireland’s work with a difficult character fraught with all sorts of clichéd pitfalls. Rising above the troubling reality of their circumstance, Ireland and Sparks are fascinating to watch as they develop together. The final moments of the film are a triumph of restraint.