Joey Klein’s feature-length directorial debut, The Other Half, is a film of binaries, pitting love against tragedy, compassion against anger, and joy against depression. While such conflicts make for compelling drama in the moment, the means by which the film incessantly wallows in the emotional strife that afflicts Emily (Tatiana Maslany) and Nickie (Tom Cullen) carries over into the scenes where they experience true happiness, muting their sense of joy in favor of sustaining a deafening tone of bleakness.
Emily and Nickie meet during an altercation at the restaurant where Nickie works, when Emily steps in to defend his aggressive response to another patron. Their initial attraction is purely physical, but they quickly become serious as they discover and find solace in each other’s shared burdens. Emily’s bipolar disorder leads to wildly uncontrollable fits of manic depression, while the disappearance of Nickie’s younger brother five years earlier has left him aimless and angry, drifting further away from his family.
Maslany, for the most part, subtly conveys the stark contrasts of Emily’s mood swings and her growing frustration with her well-meaning but overprotective parents. But the character often feels pigeonholed, embodying the manic pixie dream girl who uses her bursts of kooky energy as a salve for a man’s insecurities. When Emily prances around the park, play-fights in her apartment, or puts on silly glasses in a convenient store, attempting to tantalize the sulking Nickie, she functions less of her own volition than as a construct—existing only to counteract Nickie’s brooding, aloof persona.
Where Maslany’s portrayal of the wild instability of mental illness is largely successful, Cullen’s depiction of Nickie’s sullen, wounded macho posturing feels like a caricature. For every gracefully authentic scene during which Nickie attempts to mend his strained relationship with his family or forge a deeper connection with Emily, there’s another of him shadow-boxing out his frustrations in the dark or throwing icy stares as he quietly suppresses his violent impulses. It’s a one-note tough-guy act that quickly wears thin.
As frustratingly inconsistent and limiting as The Other Half’s characterizations are, though, it’s the film’s excessively gloomy aesthetic and stylistic tics that are mostly responsible for stifling the emotional resonance toward which the story aims. From the dimly lit cinematography, which often depicts Emily and Nickie whispering seriously to each other in the shadows, to the overuse of split-editing techniques that see the audio from a previous scene bleed into a subsequent one, the film’s ostentatious visual flourishes clearly attempt to overcompensate for the lack of complexity in terms of storytelling.
The relentlessly grim tone of The Other Half leaves a cloud of grief hanging over not only the stretches where the couple’s emotional turmoil is overbearing for them, but also the very scenes where they’re transcending their despair and the audience should at least be sharing in the release of the couple’s pain. No matter the context, the dire solemnity of their circumstances is underscored at every turn, ultimately engulfing the film in an overbearing staidness and spoiling what, at times, is an effectively intimate love story.