Penny is a chatty, free-spirited woman who thinks she's met her soulmate in a man named Paul. Driving across the Mojave desert together, Penny talks Paul's ear off about their future life together in her hometown of Houston, where they're headed.
But as their drive unfolds, Paul -- a lapsed preacher in the middle of an existential crisis and possibly a depression -- begins to realize they may not know one another as well as they think. So he begins plotting his escape, only to realize he can't quite escape himself.
Written and directed by Brian Rawlins this short romantic comedy takes the idea of a soulmate or "twin flame" and puts it under a microscope. With a dry, deadpan sense of visuals and character, it looks at how most romances begin with an idealized sense of fantasy and projection -- and how the masks eventually come off and alter the tenor of the relationship.
We meet both characters just before a moment of crisis. Penny is rambling about Houston, while Paul looks frankly sick to his stomach at the thought. What should be an auspicious new chapter of their love story turns into a possible split. Taking its cues from the somewhat delusional optimism of Penny, the tone is brightly quirky, reflecting the intensity of the desert setting in the relentless daylight.
As the storytelling unfurls, we get more information that reveals each's characters deeper emotional truth. What seems like two different characters on the oddball scale gain shading and nuance, a deepening that's also nicely reflected in the duskier, moody twilight that suffuses the film.
Both characters, as it turns out, are at points of crisis in their life. To cope, they've escaped to Vegas and started a romance to divert themselves. But in the end, they can't avoid the suffering, which they both realize as the film shifts into a more soulful, heartfelt register.
Actors Olivia Grace Applegate and Benjamin Schrader both turn in performances that span the tonal spectrum of the film, playing both the offbeat comedy with the emotional pain it masks. They stay true to their characters, but peel back layers of vulnerability and honesty. And in the end, it may just be enough for both to take the next step.
"Penny and Paul" is quite sweet at its end, but it earns it because both characters not only have to face their truths but reveal them to each other. In the end, it's a love story. But this relationship isn't running on the fumes of sexual chemistry or about filling a hole in each other's lives. Instead, it's about truth and acceptance, and walking with one another on the path. Because of that, this odd, compelling pair might stand a fighting chance at love, despite their travails, doubts and fears.