‘Slow’ Review: Asexual Romantic Drama Struggles to Make a Convincing Pair

Asexuality is rare enough on screen that a film that does acknowledge its existence can build an entire storyline out of it. But the scant few depictions of it in popular media that do exist — mostly in progressive teen shows like Netflix’s “Sex Education” or “Heartbreak High” — generally present storylines about the orientation (or, depending on your view, lack thereof) in an instructive manner for general audiences. Their supporting asexual characters are typically young, confused teens, and their journeys to understand and accept their orientation are highlighted by arcs that pit them with love interests who struggle with the unconventional shape their relationship takes.

“Slow,” the second feature from Lithuanian director Marija Kavtaradzė, offers a somewhat different type of asexual character. Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) certainly talks about his difficulties coming to terms with his asexuality as a child, but when the audience first meets him he’s decidedly not an awkward teenager. He’s a grown man working as a sign language interpreter who has long since accepted and opened up about his asexuality, and pursues dating despite the complications that his orientation causes. But the film’s setup, pairing Dovydas with a sexually free woman and surveying their attempts to build an unconventional union together, feels a bit too didactic and rudimentary to offer unique insights into what happens when you take the sex out of relationships — especially when it struggles to convince that the two lovers belong together in the first place.

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That’s no fault of Cicėnas or his costar Greta Grineviciute, playing Dovydas’ love interest Elena. The two share a natural chemistry from the moment they meet in Elena’s dance studio, where Dovydas serves as the interpreter for a class she’s teaching to a group of deaf teens. Elena is instantly taken by the tall, bearded, and handsome Dovydas, whose bashful disposition hides a wry sense of humor. Dovydas is similarly into the goofy, messy, and unselfconscious Elena, and soon after the meet-cute, the two are sharing long walks after class and opening up about their families. At Elena’s invitation, they head to her room, and Dovydas pops what seems like an invitation to a hook-up with a blunt “I’m asexual.” Elena, teased by her dance friends for losing interest in men after a month, initially takes this as a rejection, to the point that she hooks up with an ex that very same night as a cure for her bruised ego.

Still, she and Dovydas continue to see each other at work, and the pull they feel toward each other doesn’t go away. So, they begin navigating what a relationship with each other could look like, and how they can both satisfy their individual needs. The parts of the film that focus on this push and pull are generally the strongest. While Dovydas is perfectly capable of having sex — in the best scene, we see the awkwardness of the pair’s first real sexual encounter — to please Elena, she explains that she wants more than just the physical act, but the experience of knowing that her partner wants her. It’s a complex dynamic, and the film is honest about how thoughtless and tone-deaf Elena can be, but it’s rendered curiously flat. That’s largely because the film situates itself a bit too firmly in Elena’s point of view, often reducing Dovydas to a figure guiding her through her issues rather than an equal partner in the conflict, and making their relationship more exhausting than it is genuinely romantic.

Kavtaradzė’s script largely narrows its focus entirely on the friction in the relationship but adds background details that go frustratingly undeveloped. Elena’s insecurities are given a fairly rote explanation involving body image issues brought forward by a demanding mother (Rimanté Valiukaite), who appears in a curiously flat meet-the-boyfriend scene, while the film entirely skips over Elena meeting Dovydas’ deaf brother. A thread about Elena’s childhood friend who became a nun seeks to add to the film’s themes of whether sex is necessary or not in life, but simply feels like a vestigial distraction. With this business intruding on the main storyline, the film regularly devolves into indie rom-com staples like a goofy dance at the wedding to try and sell the relationship. It often has the opposite effect, making their supposedly powerful connection feel all too run-of-the-mill.

While the screenplay falters at delivering a convincing romance, Kavtaradzė is more successful in making the modest film look swoony and lush. Cinematographer Laurynas Bareiša’s shoots the film in a crunchy but pleasing 16mm that feels intimate and tactile. In directing the film, Kavtaradzė often shows great attention to the characters’ physicality — how Dovydas posture loosens and tightens as he grows comfortable and insecure in his relationship, the way Elena expresses her passion through her dancing — in a way that greatly enhances our understanding of them both. Throughout the film, Kavtaradzė interjects scenes of Elena’s rehearsals and recitals, rendered as sweaty and breathless, and bookends the film with sequences of Dovydas interpreting a music performance against a blue backdrop, with vivid signage and animated facial expressions. Together, these scenes bring out an interesting idea, showing how the two can convey passion in their own ways, even if they struggle to communicate it to each other.

“Slow” doesn’t do enough with this, and it struggles in its attempts to find deeper reasons their relationship makes sense that counteract the more obvious incompatibilities. Cicėnas and Grineviciute are both strong actors, each conveying their character insecurities and vulnerabilities with nuance, but their chemistry together isn’t quite enough to paper over the cracks in the movie’s love story. Early in the film, after her first meeting with Dovydas, Elena dreamily tells two gossiping friends that she has a strange feeling “that I’ve known him for ages.” It’s a failing of “Slow” that you don’t really believe her.

Grade: C+

KimStim Films will release “Slow” at New York’s IFC Theater on May 3, followed by a limited release in Los Angeles and Chicago on May 10.

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