Single location films are bizarrely enthralling. They never sound particularly interesting when you describe them to others, but the sense of panic (Buried), powerlessness (127 Hours) and tension between characters (12 Angry Men) seems to be accentuated through the integration of a fixed area.
Union Square isn’t actually a single-location film, but enough of it takes place in a Manhattan apartment to justify that rambling introduction. The drama harnesses the same emotion that single-location films can often generate in audiences, dragging viewers into a really stressful and awkward, yet ultimately rewarding, 90 minutes. The film tells the story of two adult sisters — Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) and Lucy (Mira Sorvino) — who have intentionally avoided each other for some three years. It’s never made clear what exactly happened, but it’s safe to say that their relationship is akin to the world in The Road: so messed up that the origin of the chaos is besides the point.
All is beautiful in Jenny’s world: she lives in a gorgeously modern apartment in Union Square with her fiancé, with whom she owns a start-up organic food business. Then Lucy, who’s seriously screwed up in the head, shows up at her door, causing the two worlds to violently collide. We’ve all had imposing guests at some point, but Lucy should give us a new thankfulness for who we haven’t had to accommodate. She invites her friends over, feeds her dog ginger root from the kitchen, watches reality TV on max volume, wears her shoes inside and smokes constantly, breaking almost every rule that Jenny has. Oh, and she invites herself to stay for a few nights. And drinks all the booze in the house.
As previously mentioned, the tension between Jenny and Lucy is considerably augmented by the fact that most of the film is shot in the apartment. It’s almost claustrophobic watching the relationship — and that’s a generous title in this case — deteriorate even further. Take, for example, the scene when Jenny cooks a tofu curry and Lucy insists that the windows be opened because the smell is so awful. It’s awkward and grating. But that’s what makes Union Square so engaging on an emotional level: Nancy Savoca, the director and co-writer, ensures that you feel what the brilliantly acted characters do. It’s physically relieving when the characters escape to a farmers’ market or a nightclub: finally, a chance to catch our breath and process the relational turmoil.
It’s difficult to comment on the plot progression without giving away the whole story, but suffice it to say that a past event which both sisters are connected to begins to gnaw away at the distance between them. The ensuing change in the relationship comes too fast to believe, but the acting by Blanchard and Sorvino make up for most of it. Union Square isn’t without flaws — the male characters seem unreasonably undeveloped and the cinematography is forgettable — but the movie serves its purpose well: to remind viewers that we’re all pretty messed up and the walls we build are only so resilient.