One would think, and rightfully so I believe, that a film about an alternate Earth orbiting around the sky would involve some sort of science-fiction element in its storytelling. When one is considering Mike Cahill's feature debut, Another Earth, one would surely be wrong. About as far from a sci-fi film as one can get (other than the peripheral planet X hovering above of course), Another Earth, much like its contemporaneously released brethren from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, Melancholia, is more a look at the psychology of depression and guilt and how we get along with our fellow humans. Sure, as is the case with both films, there is that initial element of fantasy, but both films, Cahill's moreso considering von Trier's penchant for the absurd, are about as down to Earth as one could imaginably get. This is a film not about other planets but about human interaction and the effects even the smallest things have on our lives.
Another Earth is the story of a young woman named Rhoda. In the beginning it seems like a fairy tale as everything is lain out in front of her. With a scholarship to MIT awaiting her graduation, Rhoda fatefully decides to drive home after an alcohol-infused celebration. As the radio squawks on about another planet being discovered, Rhoda hits a car stopped at a traffic light, killing the woman, pregnant at that, and her toddler son. We find out later, after Rhoda has spent four years in prison, that the husband and father had survived the wreck and has just recently come out of a coma. Now working as a school janitor, Rhoda seeks the man out to tell him what she had done, but instead infiltrates his life and tries to do whatever she can to help him get through his pain. This is both Rhoda's penance, and her way to her own salvation in a way.
With a more Earthbound sense of dread than the aforementioned Melancholia (Cahill does not hurtle his planet at ours like von Trier does in the Dane's destructive nature) Rhoda seems to ease not only this man's pain but her own as well. In a way, Cahill's film is about hope (in a way von Trier's could never be) and the goodness that comes from guilt. With shades of Tarkovsky's Solaris - all of Tarkovsky really - Cahill builds his film up with moments of quiet self-fortitude and a cathartic cadence that drives the film with a methodical beauty hidden below the surface pain and anguish. Much of this selfless, disarming beauty comes from not only Cahill's subtle direction (again, like Tarkovsky but without the overall bravado) but also from the sleek, workmanlike performance of Brit Marling as the tragic Rhoda. Perhaps it lacks the cinematic chutzpah of the similarly themed, but ultimately dissimilar von Trier work, but what Cahill's film has going for it is its undying sense of humanity. It is in this humanity, and not in any perceived science fiction, that Another Earth works so well.