Aaron Barnes is on the autistic spectrum: shy, avoiding eye contact, voice precise and movement stiff. He designs software and is a mathematical genius. His best (and only) friend is a stuffed bear named Eddie. He makes halting attempts at online dating, sometimes putting off potential amors by monitoring his own emotions, out loud, robotically saying "sad face" and "happy face."
Aaron's mother died recently, and he dutifully follows up her care duties with a grumpy old man named Ben Olsen. Bringing Ben sandwiches and enduring his insults about "the younger generation" is as close as Aaron comes to a regular relationship. Aaron lacks social skills yet craves contact, and out of spare parts he makes a robot to be his partner and names her Emma.
So starts Boy Makes Girl, the film directorial debut of Mark Elias, who also wrote the screenplay and plays Aaron. Mr. Elias is the latest of a string of shoestring auteurs, made possible by digital production and streaming. His film is billed as a "sci-fi comedy," but it's pretty low-fi and not a comedy in the knee-slapping sense. Instead, it's a small and sensitive take on how we pair off today.
Mr. Elias has an intense demeanor and is known for his role in TV's 9-1-1 Lone Star, and here he's a one-man band. His acting is more inspired than his direction (with Mark David), which tends to be flat and expository. He plays Aaron as a cross between David Byrne's jerky stage persona and actor Rami Malek (known, ironically, for his role in Mr. Robot): buttoned up and mechanical.
Aaron's made-up mate Emma (played by Grey's Anatomy's Meghan Holoway) begins as a throwback to characters we've seen in everything from Bewitched to The Little Mermaid: an innocent come into a world not of her making. But she becomes eager to experience what humans call life. She finds joie de vivre than Aaron can't even imagine. While Aaron waves his arms to keep the world away, Emma waves her arms to embrace it.
The throwback theme is underscored with the casting of character actor Paul Dooley, who played everybody's dad, best known for Sixteen Candles. He's gruff old Ben Olsen, Aaron's mother's former charge. Ben is old school, referring to women as "broads," every other word starting with F. He takes Aaron under his wing, showing him adventure, gambling and carousing. Things turn dark when he asks Aaron to buy him Oxy.
That dark turn is Boy Makes Girl's saving grace. It sets it apart. John Billingsley's sleazy character helps with this (you'll recognize him from lots of stuff, most recently Star Trek: Enterprise). Before he comes on, Boy Makes girl is tame and predictable. Its low budget shows. Aaron's "lab" is low tech, just a few computer monitors in a dark room. Aaron's creation of Emma isn't shown; she’s just suddenly there. The sets are obviously rooms in peoples' homes; Ben Olsen's house looks too well-kept for an old man alone; there isn’t even the remains of a TV dinner on the living room table. A drug dealer's symbol of ominous affluence is an above-ground pool. But what Boy Makes Girl lacks in production values in logistics it makes up in heart.
It raises some interesting questions: what kind of mate would we build? What do we expect from them in this age of shifting social identities and personal autonomy? How must we adjust ourselves to fit? The press notes list Weird Science as an inspiration, but that 1985 John Hughes film was a male masturbatory fantasy. Mr. Elias' film is more of the times. Themes of loneliness, abandonment, and the debt of generations present themselves.
Boy makes Girl is an admirable first effort, one of the best of recent auteur projects that goes straight to streaming. It used to take years for filmmakers with ideas to come up through the ranks, starting in the proverbial mailroom. Now they routinely produce feature length movies almost as a business card, instead of "reels." Boy Makes Girl's playful take on Frankenstein is one of the best surprises of the season.
Boy Makes Girl. Directed by Mark Elias, 2023. Available on VOD platforms. 105 minutes.