Imaginary Heroes was the opener at last year’s Asheville Film Festival, where it went down quite well with the audience. The film, which has been in (limited) theatrical release since February, has finally made it back to the area.
This is not a great movie, by any means, but it is an always-interesting one — even when it veers off the rails. Perhaps the film’s biggest problem lies in the fact that its sub-genre — the dysfunctional family in upscale suburbia — has been milked to death ever since Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in 1980.
Of course, even then, it wasn’t exactly new. The theme had fueled Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, for example, and was certainly a component of his previous film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Goofily dysfunctional film families date back to at least the 1930s, with Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey and my personal favorite, Alfred Green’s The Merry Frinks (watch for it on Turner Classic Movies) — even if no one had heard the term “dysfunctional” at the time.
Harris’ film definitely has its roots in these films, among others (it borrows a major plot point from the Boulting Brothers’ wonderful The Family Way). It does, however, bring something new to the party that, along with dynamite performances from Sigourney Weaver and Emile Hirsch, makes it well worth a look. The film’s certainly head and shoulders above other recent examples of the form like Eulogy, The Door in the Floor and the truly execrable We Don’t Live Here Anymore.
It’s not too surprising that it was on the strength of Harris’ Imaginary Heroes screenplay that Brian Singer hired him to work on the screenplay of X2 — and not just because the out-gay Singer likely responded to Harris’ extremely sensitive (and somewhat daring, as events turn out) handling of a homosexual encounter between Tim Travis (Hirsch) and another boy. I suspect that the X2 script’s general sympathy with “outsider” characters in general played a large role in Singer’s choice — and we know that choice paid handsome dividends.
Because it leans a little too much on Ordinary People, with its death-of-an-older-brother underpinnings, Imaginary Heroes‘ merits lie more in the characters than the story. Tim’s older brother, Matt (Kip Pardue, The Rules of Attraction), commits suicide, throwing the family into depression and chaos. The father, Ben (Jeff Daniels), enshrines his late son — insisting that his place be set at the dinner table and food be served there — while simultaneously withdrawing from his living relations.
Tim has to deal not only with this, but with the general contempt his father has always evidenced toward him. Matt was tall and athletic, a champion swimmer who vicariously fulfilling Ben’s dreams, while Tim is short, sensitive and the antithesis of athletic. Worse, Tim has to contend with his high school’s bereavement over the loss — sentiments that not only place Matt above him, but which he knows are grounded in an imagined idea of who Matt was.
We learn that there are secrets within secrets — starting with the guarded fact that Matt hated swimming. This leads to questions about bruises on Tim’s body and just what is at the bottom of Ben and Sandy’s (Weaver) long-wrong marriage, as well as the question of why Sandy has a simmering dislike of next door neighbor Marge (Deidre O’Connell, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
As with all such movies, the story consists of the peeling away of the secrets. Some of this is successfully developed, some of it’s a bit clunky. All of it, though, is held together by Weaver’s blunt-spoken, pot-smoking, iconoclastic Sandy and Hirsch’s touchingly real Tim. Their scenes together are brilliantly done, to the point that it makes some of the scenes where they don’t play opposite each other seem less successful than they otherwise might. This is particularly true of Weaver, who can sometimes overpower the scenes without Hirsch (often enjoyably). Hirsch fares a little better in his scenes with girlfriend Steph (newcomer Suzanne Santo) and best friend Kyle (Ryan Donowho, A Home at the End of the World), possibly because his is a quieter role.
The direction is generally sound, but it does show the signs of a first-time feature director who is a little too in love with a film that could have been made better by a bit of pruning. Harris, however, succeeds in capturing the feel of the film’s environment, and he scores more often than not. And while some of his “surprises” become pretty obvious early on, he also has a happy knack for setting up cliches and then sidestepping them against expectation.
Uneven it may be, but Imaginary Heroes is a movie very much worth seeing. Rated R for substance abuse, sexual content, language and some violence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke