May 4, 2006

Imaginary Heroes (2004)

            It may seem redundant that there is another film out there about the dark underbelly of suburbia, but Dan Harris (who wrote and directed the film at the age of 24) proves that you cannot get too much of a good thing with the independent film, Imaginary Heroes. The setting is upper-middle class, New Jerseyesque landscape of manicured lawns, gorgeous homes with perfectly furnished mise-en-scène interiors, the comfort of the reliable family doctor, well-fashioned holiday décor and the usual adultery, drug use, deception, lies and secrets that lie underneath the soft belly of the burbs. As Harris himself said in a “Director’s Statement,” describing his motivation for writing the movie, “I've always been interested in what's underneath a person's shell,” the film does just that – opening a shell that would otherwise be closed – while it does not outdo the brilliant opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the juxtaposed image of a man mowing his clean, green lawn with bugs eating away at a human finger – the movie shines in its picturing of the sound of myriad hearts breaking simultaneously. Compared to other recent films that deal with similar issues, like the Chumscrubber, this movie is less ample on the satire and more strident with the gut.
Even in its darkest moments, Dan Harris manages to keep the comedy intact, but not losing the gravitas of its subject, drawing out the theme of imaginary heroes. The film is taut with child/parent disappointment. The son has to remind the mother at his brother’s funeral to get out of the limousine, “Mom, this is where we live.” The film is about the dubious roles of parents and heroes, but it is also about the paradox of sharing our lives with those we love, how we can become strangers even to our own lives, and the inane stupidity of those around us marked by moments of insights even from the groggiest of characters. We would rather keep ourselves to ourselves, keep our secrets intact, but life does not allow that to happen, as Dan Harris himself has pointed out about his film, “An outside force has to do it - to shatter it to pieces”.
As J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” ends with the suicide of a prodigy, this movie opens with the death of the star high school swimmer legend, Matt Travis (played by Kip Pardue) who shoots himself in the head with a revolver after a meet. But the death of Matt Travis serves as a key to unlock the door of another prodigy, his brother, Tim (played by Emile Hirsch), who never in his life has seriously bothered with the question, “What am I going to do?” When he finds his brother dead one morning, his head broken like a dropped watermelon, the Travis family starts vomiting out its secrets one by one. I think the film, although dealing with many important issues of contemporary family life, focuses on the character of Tim most poignantly and his struggle to overcome some rather disturbing events, both physical and mental. He is a victim of bullying, domestic abuse, family alienation, heartbreak, issues of sexuality and friendship. Tim reveals his wounds by physical bruises, but these are not the only injuries to his person, as we slowly come to realize, as the script painfully unveils the origins and outcome of Tim's scars. Everyone who loves him hurts him. Emile Hirsch plays out the character quite well, revealing frame after frame in the visual expression of his body, a host of conflicting emotions inside the soul of a young person whom no one seems to listen to or know very well, unknowing and unaware of his depth of soul and prodigious talent. Hirsch is flexible enough to play a serious part, like he did in Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, and fun stuff like in Emperor’s Club; both aspects of his acting ability come out in this movie as well – he is likable on screen and at the same time believable when we want to emotionally connect with his life. If film is any indicator of the problems of society, then I think the recurring theme of kids who are not heard, not loved, not appreciated, should be a wake up call.
Several scene stick out but I like the sister/brother bonding scenes the best. In a moment of two siblings sharing a doobie, curled up on a red, spinnable playground saucer, Tim asks Penny (played by Michelle Williams), “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” The scene is framed in a familiar, recurring image of the film: the comfortable playground where Tim obviously feels at home, filmed from a bird’s eye view, because with every character Tim feels comfortable to share a part of himself, and we view these intimate moments he shares in the red, spinnable playground saucer, complete with childish grafitti carved in pencil, from above. After advising him curtly to pass the joint, Penny tells him, “Tim, well, the secret to the success of life is to find something you love. And you have to do that for the rest of your life … And you better hope to hell that you’re good at it because if you’re not then you’ll probably fail.” This simple line of advice from Penny serves as the movie’s central theme, the responsibility of talent and the possibility of failure. Why does one person have a talent he cannot stand, like Matt, who hated the attention his swimming fame brought, but no one notices Tim’s talent – no one – because no one bothers to ask him? Not even us. The film makes us aware that we ourselves do not know Tim as well as we thought we did when we first meet this handsome, sad, guy; in our intimate understanding of Tim, as it progresses, we are reminded that not everyone is as they seem to be. This is the other side of the film, the failure of those who should – parents, friends, teachers – whoever – to notice and see the gifts of the people they claim to love.
Not even his mother Sandy, played by Sigourney Weaver, sees Tim’s gift, despite her love for her son. Weaver does a deft job of portraying a middle-aged woman grappling with her own inner demons as she haphazardly tries to play the roles of domesticity and support. When Tim is found to be bullied at school, she storms the boy’s trailer, threatening his life, “You can tease, torture, punch, drive drunk with me, I can forgive you. Hell I can understand it, I’m a good Christian, you know, I can forgive and forget, but you mess with my kid and may God himself descend from heaven to protect you because as long as I live – and I will outlive you all – I will wake up and go to sleep at night just dreaming of ways to make your petty insignificant lives into hell on earth.” After flicking a paper cup into the mother’s face, she looks around the trailer, and looking at them both, the kid and his stunned mother, comments, “nice trailer” and leaves as quickly as she came. Weaver scores in her ability to match gusto with visceral wit that is acid and witty.
And Tim’s father, played by Jeff Daniels, is blind to who his son is, treating him like a stranger, not telling his family that he took time off from the office, spending his days in the city park, listless, a carved out soul, and sleeping in Matt’s bed, tucked in with his high school letter jacket. Jeff Daniels does a superb job of making us believe that he can be both a bastard and lovable because we grow to see that even an inept father can show his love for his son. In an emotional scene Tim confronts his father. Just when you think his dad is going to hit him, he grabs for him to embrace him. Not letting him go, he tells Tim, “I am your father and you’re are my son and I’m here okay but you’ve gotta talk to me. I don’t know how to do this by myself”. It is here at this moment in the film that a father tells his son, you have to tell me what’s going on inside of you, you have to tell me who you are; I want to know who you are. It is in this scene that the film reaches a cathartic moment, the visual movement from Tim, angry and alone, to his father embracing him as he breaks downs and weeps, revealing the emotions hidden beneath his shell. There is a sense of joy for Tim as he experiences this moment of cleansing with his dad, especially when you consider the mistreatment, manipulation, disregard, violence and betrayal he has been dealt in the long year the film encompasses.
Dan Harris admits that Imaginary Heroes is a kind of Greek Tragedy where you “… begin with a single action, a single mistake - the 'original sin'. It is the seed from which the story grows …”. This is an aspect of drama that has not changed since ancient times, but rather projected into film as well onto stage, the cathartic nature of film to tell in the guise of a story the archetypal sins of our lives, the ‘original sins’ that we keep secret and do not allow to be purged. A film like Imaginary Heroes is just as excellent as the Greek plays in its ability to grow inside the human heart a seed in which a story can be told that is completely human and completely vibrant. I enjoy films that affirm that if we love someone, really love them, with our whole hearts – then that can really make a different – no matter how many warts, snags, obstacles there are. So. It will be interesting to see what Dan Harris has up his sleeve for us next time.

Imaginary Heroes
Written and Directed by Dan Harris
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch, Jeff Daniel, Michelle Williams, with Kip Pardue.
111 minutes, Rated R for substance abuse, sexual content, language and some violence.



 


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