Doppelgängers are a classic film motif in part because films themselves double us, projecting uncanny, lifelike figures we’re meant to identify with. Bill Oliver’s Jonathan is about this “schizophrenic” quality of modern media, and the way digital media in particular splits our attention and even personality into divergent threads. In the film, two brothers exist within the same body, their consciousnesses alternating between possession of it in regular shifts. They communicate with one another via digital video and smartphone, which also helps them maintain separate schedules and identities. This communication gradually breaks down as each young man begins to pursue independence, finding the customary growing pains experienced by adult siblings particularly difficult when they’re sharing a body.
It’s a fascinating, if not totally unfamiliar, idea that opens potentially fertile ground for the exploration of identity in the digital age. The narrative centers on one of the brothers, Jonathan (Ansel Elgort), who’s in control of this body from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. We get glimpses of the other one, John (also Elgort), through the video messages they record for each other daily. From their preferred forms of address alone, you can guess at their personalities: Jonathan, who goes by his proper name, is orderly, responsible, and a bit uptight; John is casual, disorganized, and carefree. When Jonathan finds out that John has been dating a bartender named Elena (Suki Waterhouse) against the brothers’ agreed-upon rules, his jealousy over John’s free lifestyle leads to an unhealthy contest between the brothers.
Jonathan‘s most interest element is its decision to focus only on one brother’s point of view, leaving the other one’s life a mystery. The film’s central irony—that sharing a body with a different person means you’re actually intractably estranged from them—creates intrigue. We piece together John’s life from the signs he leaves behind, pondering off-screen events as Jonathan pieces together the nights his body—but not his mind—experienced (sometimes he wakes up with John’s hangovers). Most of the film takes place in their shared apartment, and Oliver uses long takes to encourage us to scan the space for indications of what has happened while we and Jonathan were absent.
Jonathan‘s imagination, however, is limited in other ways. The dichotomy represented by Jonathan and John is too clean—the former is neat, calm, and virginal while the other is messy, animated, and promiscuous—for the film’s exploration of a divided psyche to ever feel particularly complex. At times, Jonathan can also feel a bit derivative. Driven by his desire to be close, or even to become John, Jonathan begins sleeping with Elena, at which point she turns into a kind of medium between the brothers. Jonathan and John desire fusion but sublimate this desire for each other into relationships with the same woman, which is the plot of David Cronenberg’s remarkable Dead Ringers, a much more challenging exploration of the male unconscious.
Oliver’s film also misses an opportunity to explore the politics of identity in a meaningful way. As the digital relationship between the two brothers breaks down, they rely on human beings to mediate their feelings for one another: Elena, their psychologist Dr. Nariman (Patricia Clarkson in a thanklessly expository role), and, in one scene, an African cab driver. Lurking in Jonathan is a story about two young, professional white men who instrumentalize women and minorities to strengthen their bond with each other. But the film appears as oblivious to this dynamic as Jonathan and John are.