“It’s not my job to make you feel comfortable,” Erin (Megan Boone) says, well past the point she’s made that abundantly clear to her camping partner Cal (David Nordstrom) in “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” I’d call him a boyfriend, but after a yearlong hiatus, the two don’t know what the proper title is for who they are to each other and in a literal case of not being able to see the forest for the trees, they head to Sequoia National Park to try and figure things out, ending up walking in circles both physically and figuratively.
For the same reasons I suspect Adele Romanski’s directorial debut might leave some audiences cold, my admiration only grew for the film as it articulates a make-or-break moment that doesn’t come easily for a couple, let alone for a filmmaker to capture in a way that doesn’t become shrill or repetitive. As a producer, Romanski seems to have become a specialist at this in recent years, shepherding such loose, unforced dramedies to the screen as “The Myth of the American Sleepover” and “The Freebie.” But “Leave Me Like You Found Me” is a tougher nut to crack, the focus intensely on its two leads in a place far from their regular lives.
Although Cal and Erin will be achingly recognizable to anyone who’s been through a similar rough patch in their relationship, the film is immediately disarming in its embrace of the foreign rather than of the familiar, with cinematographers James Laxton and Jay Keitel in awe of the surrounding Sequoias, but thankfully less so of getting in the middle of the couple’s spats throughout. The contrast of the two worlds — one majestic, the other mundane — sets the stage for a survival tale unlike any other, the physical wilderness strangely becoming a safer place than inside a tent with the two where neither are sure of their emotions. But here it’s not just the close proximity of the characters that Romanski plays off of, the two trading sweet nothings one minute and bickering the next, but our proximity to it as viewers, able to fill in the gaps in their history with the perhaps uncomfortable moments in our own.
For this reason, the characters of Cal and Erin appear to be built in fairly traditional archetypes – Cal is stoic and a bit careless while Erin is eternally in need of affirmation (at one point, she coos about not wanting to fall asleep so she can spend more time with him), using her flirtiness to charm and to mask a deep uncertainty about herself and Cal. Nordstrom and Boone fill the roles well, instantly in sync enough to suggest the reasons why they fight for their relationship, but not afraid of the occasionally brittle poses they have to strike along the way. They also have a sharp script from Romanski to draw from which incrementally reveals their backstory through casual conversation. This has a particularly clever payoff when halfway through the film, a timebomb is introduced when Erin asks Cal whether he wants to attend a wedding that’s months away, but needs a RSVP now.
In the type of film that’s expected to be aimless, the seemingly innocuous request gives what follows a shape in addition to igniting a series of little explosions between the couple. Even if the spark is gone from their relationship, it still exists for the film, leaving behind a sparkling debut to be found in the embers of a likely doomed romance.