Imaginary Heroes (6/10)

by Tony Medley

Talk about your dysfunctional families, the Travis family takes the cake. The producers claim that this “is a look at one long year in the lives of an ostensibly typical, upper-middle-class suburban family. It tells a tale of a family in crisis with wit, warmth and a very contemporary sardonic spin.”

Well, maybe I’m the dysfunctional one because I saw not one iota of wit or warmth and it certainly wasn’t sardonic. Rather, it’s dark and depressing. But it is a good picture of a family that seems normal on the outside, but is something completely different on the inside. Sandy Travis (Sigourney Weaver) is a wife and mother who has cheated on her husband. Ben (Jeff Daniels) is a slovenly husband and father who apparently never shaves and is psychologically brutal to his entire family with never a kind word for any of them. Tim (Emile Hirsch) is the second son who is very close to his mother, physically abused at school, and is wandering through life aimlessly. Penny (Michelle Williams) is a daughter who is away at school and has little relationship with the family except to sit at occasional dinner tables and observe her father’s abusive behavior.

The story is triggered by a tragedy at the beginning of the film and the rest of the movie tells the tale of how the family coped during the year following the tragedy.

This is yet another of a series of films that show families living without affection. Sandy and Tim are shown to have a close relationship, but the relationship is conveyed by Sandy talking with Tim about masturbation, and Sandy saying, “We are probably the only mother and son who can use the word ‘masturbation’ in normal conversation.” I guess that’s supposed to indicate that they are close. But Tim is clearly unhappy and does not get much solace from his Mother, who is, let’s face it, cold to everyone. Tim endures the problems at home, his father’s hostility, and the abuse at school with stoicism.

Writer-director Dan Harris explains the premise of the film, “I’ve always been interested in what’s underneath a persons shell. Even as a kid I could tell people were sometimes hiding things deeper and darker than they would ever admit. I knew there were stories beneath the surface. I knew there were mistakes and regrets that were actually the foundations of their lives, but when people have spent their entire lives building a façade, it’s often impossible to break it. An outside force has to do it – to shatter it to pieces.”

There were two technical problems that marred the film slightly for me. At one point, Sandy’s neighbor, Marge Dwyer (Deirdre O’Connell), lives in the house on Sandy’s right. But later in the film she lives in the house on Sandy’s left. The second problem is that Weaver has clearly been stricken with the Sean Penn syndrome. Near the end of the film Weaver has a crying scene and she bawls and bawls and bawls without a drop of fluid escaping her eyes. Sean would be proud.

This is no comedy, but it is an intuitive study of a dysfunctional family living what looks to an outsider as a normal life. Hirsch and Weaver and Daniels portray their roles with a realism that makes the whole thing worthwhile. The acting is exceptional. I liked the fact that you are wondering about why they are reacting the way they are and it all pulls together at the end.

February 6, 2005

The End