2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Ambitious science fiction told on a budget can cut both ways. On the one hand, limited resources spur unconventional creativity. On the other, an unfulfilled promise is always a danger. Such is the case with the sci-fi effort “Only,” which has an amazing premise, yet fitfully executes it. As an independent film, “Only” prioritizes ideas over scope, but it’s a situation where a larger canvas would have helped. As a chamber piece, it can just go so far.
“Only” is an indie movie yearning to be something more. This film doesn’t read blockbuster, but the world it crafts is too robust for this small scale telling. For some, the hints at something larger will represent a tantalizing tease. For others, it will seem too incomplete to embrace. Between the divisive factor and a nonlinear narrative, the film is too disjointed to work.
A comet has impacted Earth, though not in the same vein as “Deep Impact,” for instance. Instead, the spacial occurrence has released a virus that is killing off the planet’s female population. For Will (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Eva (Freida Pinto), this has effectively doomed their relationship. Desperate to keep Eva alive, Will has sealed off their apartment, protecting them from the virus, as well as the new dangers of the outside world.
As time passes, they struggle with their new means of a quasi-habitat, living in quarantine all their own. Will is committed to this life, but Eva isn’t leading them to escape into the wilderness, where they encounter hunters looking to eliminate the few women who have survived. There, the relationship will be tested in newer but just as dangerous ways.
The duo of Leslie Odom Jr. and Freida Pinto commit fully to their roles. For them, this is an intimate relationship drama, with the sci-fi elements at the periphery of the main conflict. Odom Jr.’s Will is in over his head but has found a way, at least he thinks, to maintain the status quo, which Pinto’s Eva pushes back. For her, this life is not being lived, merely existing. Both of them effectively convey this to the audience. With only a few others in the cast, there are only the likes of Chandler Riggs and Jayson Warner Smith to take note of. Odom Jr. and Pinto are the centerpieces.
Kudos to filmmaker Takashi Doscher not just for coming up with this idea, but for casting actors of color in the central roles. Odom Jr. and Pinto were two of his best choices here. That being said, how he tells the story is not his finest hour. The news reports and details about the virus don’t color the story with information, leaving more to be desired, and distracting from the central narrative. Plus, Doscher has opted to tell the story out of sequence. Moving between different timelines, there are no bearings in this narrative, preventing an effective relationship between the audience and Doscher’s characters. In trying to put some extra flourishes on the picture, he damages it beyond repair.
How audiences feel about the choices made by the filmmaker will largely impact whether “Only” works for them. With just a bit more scope added, the could have been a larger, more satisfying endeavor. Conversely, with an even tighter focus on the central couple, with almost no sci-fi elements, curiosity would not have been piqued. In a very real way, Doscher is a victim of his own ambition. He misses the mark here, but not by much.