While there are more characters, this story is carried almost entirely by Meester (The Oranges) and newcomer Shatkin, who create an odd pair. The joy of the film is not really knowing who is healing whom as the unlikely plot and interactions unfold. The two manage to walk an interesting line together in the main relationship that avoids some obvious traps and cliches. Meester, in particular, handles her rather messed up character believably, even when she has to make leaps in logic to get there. Shatkin, as a first major role, did fine, but the uber-intelligent dialog didn’t exactly feel natural on his tongue. He did, however, deliver it with the appropriate style, and worked well with his co-star, allowing it all to come together well enough to satisfy.
Messing, as the young man’s mother, created a frustratingly real upper-West-side matron for whom little sympathy can be served. She isn’t so much evil as unaware. It feels like there is a backstory for her, the seeds of which are buried in some comments by the son, but we never really get to it, which is unfortunate. Meester’s family is much clearer to us, even if they get less screen time. The dialog there is much more poignant and sure.
Better known for his character and voice work, this is Whaley’s fourth offering as a writer/director. Much like Gosling’s Lost River, it is a passion project, though Whaley is a bit less even in his delivery. His directing is fairly solid, but his writing is weaker… it probably sounded great in his head and on the page, but in the actor’s mouths it often fell flat or clanged as unnatural. However, my biggest gripe was the unfortunate long shots of his main characters playing instruments… when they clearly aren’t playing the notes we’re hearing. I don’t know if the actors can or can’t play, but they didn’t match the rather beautiful music that was written for the movie, likely because it wasn’t written at the time of filming. It is a huge distraction as this is a key point of the characters and story. My recommendation is to watch their faces or the composition of the shots (both well done) rather than their fingering.
I have to admit that I wanted this film to surprise me more, like Submarine or The Way Way Back or Pride or An Education or any number of other stories about bright young people affecting the adult world around them while learning something themselves. As satisfying as the film is, it somehow missed its biggest opportunities with the younger lead, turning the film (almost) into an odd, step or two removed, interpretation of Pinocchio. Yes, that’s a stretch, but if you put one of the characters into a Jiminy Cricket or fairy godmother role, you’ll see the point; just don’t worry about it till after you watch.
And do watch it. Despite any misgivings, I’d still recommend this movie for an evening when you want a slightly off-beat, slightly syrupy reminder of how to take control of your life and how to nurse your passions. It works, even if it doesn’t quite wow.