Dystopian sci-fi often tends to paint in broad strokes as it outlines a vision of an alternate reality. But in Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” however, the focus is on the minutiae and the barely perceptible.
Though its color-drained, emotionless milieu exists somewhere on the spectrum between “Pleasantville” and “The Giver,” the pleasures hardly derive from the gradual revelations of the imagined premise’s limitations. In fact, the film often stumbles when it ventures into thriller-style intrigue around the “escape” from oppression. “Equals” soars when Doremus allows the incredibly specific, gently realized acting of stars Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult to shine.
As cogs in an industrial machine that has sought to biologically eliminate emotions in the name of productivity and peace, Hoult’s Silas begins to feel the stirrings of affection for Stewart’s Nia after observing – ironically enough – her distinct mannerisms like lip biting and unusual eye movement. In these initial flirtations, their attractions scarcely register as the most minor of gestures. Doremus shows an eye for the subtle, the virtually unnoticeable that proves so unique to the cinema.
The chaste, hidden-in-plain-sight romance that plays out in public possesses a truly beautiful nuance and a wonderful correlation to the world all of us inhabit. The small graze of a crush’s hand or the intercepted glance often packs the most profound emotional wallop. It’s a shame that when their relationship moves into the more physical, sensual realm that “Equals” loses this bliss. In their fumbling for sexual intimacy, Doremus presents Silas and Nia as darkly silhouetted and reduced to mere grunts, gasps. Yes, they are discovering sexuality on a primal scale. But there has to be more to it.
Actually, there is more to it, as Hoult and Stewart so clearly demonstrate. With each passing scene, we can see the gradual expansion of the emotional pallets available to Stewart and Hoult – mostly in the latter. Stewart maintains a primarily leveled tenor as Nia, but Hoult grows into an emotionally sensitive character on par with his deeply empathetic turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Warm Bodies.” Doremus may spin in circles doing a kind of Harmony Korine-esque haze of words, fragmentary shots and trance-like score, but the actors of “Equals” keep the film centered. B /