Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) cannot seem to get his life together. His only family left is on her deathbed stricken with cancer. He has no prospects, very little money and not much of a future. And after a violent run-in with some roustabouts at a local bar, he gets to add suspect on the run to his long list of mounting problems. With nothing tying him to his languid California life, Evan drops the last of his money on a one-way plane ticket to Italy, where he can backpack his cares away and avoid the US police at the same time. After a short stint palling around with some outspoken Brits, he comes across a stunning beauty in a red dress named Louise (Nadia Hilker), and a quickly blossoming torrid physical relationship threatens to evolve into something more emotional and affectionate, so much so that he decides to settle down in town and get a job working at a local farm. But Louise harbors a dark and mysterious secret, and it is only a matter of time before Evan learns the truth.

Such is the story of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring, a film that, for much of its first half at least seems thoroughly out of place debuting at Fantastic Fest, the independent horror film festival that graces Austin every year. Indeed, as Evan and Louise hit it off and get to know each other, the film seems to have more in common with Before Sunrise than Halloween. Yet nothing ever feels entirely straightforward, even before the true nature of Louise’s secret is exposed. Moorhead’s camera (he pulls double duty as cinematographer, just as Benson pulls double duty as screenwriter) shoots the Italian countryside beautifully, but sprinkles liberal bird’s-eye flyover shots that manage to unsettle, hinting perhaps at something that only makes itself known from afar, otherwise hidden in plain sight. Spring’s color pallette is often sunscorched and washed out, never as vibrant as it feels it should be. It is an artistic choice here, one that seems designed to make Louise stand out against the world.

The twist at the core of Spring, this mysterious secret that makes the film into something more than a Richard Linklater ripoff, is best served as a true surprise (which is a tough feat, as the nature of the twist is what has driven many to see it in the first place). It points to the bold scripting from Benson; the film so effortlessly inhabits its two worlds, but is not satisfied with simple shifts of tone, offering instead to intertwine the seemingly disparate elements in a deeply affecting way in its final third. One has to play coy here, which is a shame though a necessary one, but it is safe to say that Benson and Moorhead toe their delicate line with confidence and aplomb. It is a premise that could have been absurd in the wrong hands, a B-movie nightmare that would undercut the central relationship. Luckily, this is not the case.

The tenderness at the core of Spring is its greatest asset, and the fact that its romance continues to grow and evolve even after the film turns into something altogether different and strange is a massive coup. In addition to the excellent scripting, the two lead actors are critically responsible for the efficacy of the enterprise. Lou Taylor Pucci imbues Evan with a vulnerable center that plays against his gruff exterior and tough upbringing. He may have run off to Italy to escape the law and perhaps get an easy lay to forget his problems, but he always remains open to life and its experiences, never knowing what could come next and never fearing the instability. Nadia Hilker, who is essentially making her debut to the majority of the American public, has the arguably trickier role here, both due to her enormous secret and the implications of it, and she distinguishes herself through layer upon layer of intricacies that belie her introduction as a generic foreign sexpot in a scintillating red dress. Even that moment is a feint, and as her layers are stripped bare, her emotions complicate themselves tenfold. Hilker burst onto the scene and makes a name for herself here, never better than in the film’s final twenty minutes. Those final moments are so fraught with feeling and the stakes so high that it is incredible that this young writer/director/cinematographer duo and these two young actors can make it all work without once dipping into self-parody.

The winter independent slate of 2015 has been cranking out some strong early contenders in this young year. A film like Spring has a lot to contend with, be it films like The Duke of Burgundy or Faults or Buzzard or ‘71 or the burgeoning horror hit It Follows. Yet Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have still managed to carve out their own little niche in the market with this film, a daring fusion of grindhouse genre fiction with indie romance that somehow uses those seemingly opposed elements to transcend and forge a tale about the power and uniting force of love, no matter how star-crossed and unlikely its subjects may be. The central story of Spring at its most basic level is not breaking any boundaries, but its surrounding bona fides are so fresh and exciting and innovative that the total package becomes a joy to behold.