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Despite what rom-coms, TV commercials and the greeting card industry might say, true love is actually a pretty ugly business. Once the initial pie-in-the-sky phase of any relationship is over, couples actually have to get down to the nitty-gritty of living with each other, warts and all. We all have aspects of our personalities that we shield from the world at large (call ’em “dark sides” but do it with a sinister glare, for effect), aspects which our significant others tend to get the brunt of, for better or worse. When everyone else has gone home, when the TV is silent and the phones are off, when there’s nothing between you and another human being but the skin you were born with and the neuroses you picked up along the way…well…that’s amore, my friends.

The trick in any new relationship, of course, is to try to see through the cotton candy and unicorns into whatever “monsters” might be lurking in the background: we’re all damaged goods, to one degree or another, but the amount of damage varies from individual to individual. Accepting our partners at their absolute worst, just as we accept them at their absolute best, is one of the key tenets of being in love: you can like people, lust after them, respect the hell out of them or any combination of the three. You can’t truly love someone, however, unless you’re willing to also love their dark side, as well.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s Spring (2014) is about this duality of romance, in ways both symbolic and much more explicit. At its core, the film is about the stirrings of new romance, the courtship and subtle dance that unites two complete strangers via their commingled heartstrings. It’s about the feelings (and thoughts) that rush to one’s cerebellum after the blood has finished rushing to points south, the questions and concerns that extend beyond “What now?” into “What next?.” Spring is about the eternal need for companionship, the primeval drive to continue the bloodline and find a sympathetic audience for our own endless tics, quirks and delusions. It’s about what happens when the person you love displays monstrous qualities…when they might be, in fact, a literal monster. Does love really conquer all or are our individual biologies really the unmitigated masters of our destinies?

When we first meet him, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is in a bit of what might best be described as a complete and total tailspin into oblivion. His beloved mother has just died after a long, drawn-out illness, he’s relentlessly angry and the world at large is just one big fight waiting to happen. While drowning his sorrows with his buddy, Tommy (fellow indie writer-director Jeremy Gardner), in the same dive bar where he works, Evan gets picked on by a meat-headed moron who’s looking to tussle. Evan cleans his clock righteously (for a small guy, he fights like a wolverine) and gets fired, on the spot, for his trouble. He also ends up in the crosshairs of the vengeance-seeking jerk and his buddies, as well as the local cops: weighing his options, Evan decides to bid a not-so-fond farewell to the U.S. of A and hightail it for the beauty and grandeur of Italy.

As the American ex-pat triapses about his newly adopted homeland, he meets a couple of assholish backpackers (Nick Nevern and Jonathan Silvestri), as well as a kind-hearted old farmer, Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), who sets Evan up with honest, hard work, as well as room and board. Just when it seems that Evan might, successfully, slip into anonymity, he lays eyes on the alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker). The rest, as they might say, could be history.

Louise is an intriguing character: a smart, droll student studying evolutionary genetics who also happens to be a vegetarian (although she admits to “craving meat” occasionally), Louise speaks several languages, raises the rabbits that she rescues from medical trials as her pets and seems but one quirky Vespa away from your standard “manic pixie girl” in a rom-com meet-cute. As mentioned previously, however, Louise has a dark side that she keeps carefully hidden from the world at large: she’s constantly injecting herself with mysterious fluids, like some sort of cyberpunk drug addict, refuses to see Evan after dark and has a tendency to turn into a slimy, reptilian, Cthulhian monster, from time to time. In other words: pretty much your usual relationship baggage.

As Evan continues to fall madly in love with Louise, she struggles with telling him too much about her own, unique genetic background: it’s hard enough not farting around your loved one…try not turning into a monster and see how it goes! For his part, Evan discovers one of Louise’s discarded needles and makes the natural assumption (no, not the monster one, silly) that his dream girl might have one foot firmly in nightmare territory. “I need to know if you’re the kind of crazy I can handle,” Evan says, at one point, a slightly goofy grin on his face. Suffice to say, Evan will have his answer before too long…whether he likes it or not.

Writer-director team Moorhead and Benson first hit my radar thanks to their astounding debut, the impossibly clever, thought-provoking and radical Resolution (2012), a film that manages to completely upend conventional notions of horror by getting all meta with the very basics of story/narrative construction. Resolution was a helluva film, by any definition, and my level of anticipation was through the roof for their full-length follow-up (their V/H/S Viral (2014) segment was tasty but not much more than an appetizer). While Spring is nowhere near the achievement that Resolution was (to be honest, few modern films are), it nonetheless finds Moorhead and Benson polishing up their craft, moving ever farther afield from the ultra lo-fi approach of their debut.

As far as mysteries go, the secret of Louise’s dual nature is pretty much dead on arrival: between the various posters, one-sheets, trailers and synopses floating around, I find it hard to believe that any semi-aware audience member would find this to be surprising in the slightest. This, of course, is never the film’s intent: Spring is much more interested in Evan and Louise’s tangled romance than it is in pulling another tired “twist” on the audience. Moorhead and Benson spill the beans approximately a third of the way into the film, leaving the remaining two-thirds as fall-out, as it were. This isn’t a film about a man who ends up falling in love with a woman who’s revealed to be part monster: it’s a film about a man who falls in love with a woman who just so happens to be part monster…it’s a subtle difference but a major one and it forms the crux for everything we see.

No romance works unless we buy into the lovers, however, which is one reason that Spring has no problem pulling off its particular hat-trick: not only are Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker completely comfortable in their roles, the pair have genuine romantic chemistry…we actually believe that they do (or could, as it were) love each other, which makes it a lot easier to empathize with everything else that happens. One of my primary concerns with “meet-cutes” is that they often feel so forced: we’re told that Quirky Girl A and Square Dude B are perfect for each other because the story requires it. Spring overcomes this obstacle by making the “falling in love” portion of the film feel like something out of a Linklater opus. There’s a genuine sense of tragedy to the proceedings because we see what a great couple Evan and Louise might be under any circumstances other than the ones they’re given.

While Pucci (who also featured prominently in the recent Evil Dead (2014) remake, as well as Richard Kelly’s nutty Southland Tales (2006)) walks a fairly predictable route as Evan, Hilker does much more interesting things with her performance as Louise. Despite this being the German actress’ first big-screen role, she absolutely owns every inch of the frame: the character of Louise is an intoxicating combination of eldritch biology, innate urges, human femininity and misplaced mothering instincts, a combination which Hilker handles with aplomb. One of the film’s biggest coups is that Louise is such a sympathetic creation: by keeping our empathy high, Moorhead and Benson allow us to slowly become as enrapt with her as Evan is.

While the filmmaking duo gets nice supporting work from a good cast (although I can’t help but wish Gardner had much more screen time than he does), this is Evan and Louise’s movie, through and through, meaning that it’s also Pucci and Hilker’s film, through and through. In many ways, it’s not a radical departure from what Leigh Janiak did in the recent Honeymoon (2014) (or even what Andrezj Zulawski did much earlier in Possession (1981)), but Moorhead and Benson’s star-crossed lovers are much more sympathetic than either Janiak or Zulawski’s protagonists. When we’re going to be spending nearly two hours with a couple of young lovers, they damn well better be interesting and Evan and Louise are anything but dull.

From a production standpoint, Spring looks gorgeous, certainly much more so than its predecessor (which was much more of a found-footage film). Aaron Moorhead’s cinematography (he also edited and produced the film, along with Benson) makes terrific use of some truly beautiful Italian scenery, taking us into picturesque old towns, lovely grottos and lush countryside in ways that split the difference between travelogue and old-world mystery. One of the most eye-popping aspects of Spring’s camerawork is the numerous crane and helicopter shots that pop up throughout: aside from giving a thoroughly awe-inspiring view of the surroundings, the cinematography also instills a proper sense of scope and scale to the narrative. When set against the backdrop of such ancient beauty and serene nature, the body-horror aspect of Spring becomes even more pronounced and grotesque, a streak of brain matter on an otherwise pristine wall.

Despite how well made Spring is, however, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed by the whole thing. While Moorhead and Benson handle this occasionally musty material with plenty of energy and wit, there’s almost no comparison to the unhinged brilliance of Resolution. In many ways, Resolution was much closer to the mind-fuck cinema of Nacho Vigalondo or even Darren Aronofsky: there was a genuine sense that absolutely anything could happen and any easy sense of narrative continuity or logic was effectively thrown from the penthouse window. Resolution was an inherently tricky film but it wasn’t a gimmicky film: rather, it used the conventions of narrative filmmaking (and even narration, itself) to make particularly incisive comments on the ways humans create.

For its part, Spring is a much more straight-forward, streamlined film: in many ways, this is just your typical indie love story, albeit one with a foot firmly set in H.R. Giger’s nocturnal dream-world. While the film is undeniable well made and entertaining, I kept expecting it to develop into something trickier and deeper, developments which never really happened. Aside from an atypically sunny ending (all things considered), there are very few genuine surprises to be found here, although there’s also a decided lack of tone-deaf or eye-rolling moments, either. If anything, Spring feels like a way for Moorhead and Benson to announce themselves to the world at large, an employment ad, if you will: “Available for thought-provoking puzzlers, multiplex popcorn fare or any combination of the two.”

Even though Spring is a solid step-down from Resolution, it’s still one of the more evocative, atmospheric and interesting films of the year: if Moorhead and Benson can just find a way to effortlessly meld the aesthetics of their two full-lengths (the anything-goes intellectual swirl of Resolution with the top-notch production values of Spring), I have a feeling that they’ll be virtually unstoppable.