This odd trip into magical realism is a sort of Russian folk tale meets Disney. A childless couple, in an act of wine influenced catharsis, writes down the characteristics that their perfect child would have had. He would have a sense of humor, be artistic and musical but not very athletic and so on. They put the notes in a box, then bury the box, and they hope their sadness in the back garden. In true Disney fashion, that night a boy appears from the garden, their perfect son. But in Russian folk tale tradition, he has a terrible, heartbreaking secret.
Oh yeah, the boy from the garden has leaves growing from his legs.
Writer/director Peter Hedges made this charming, if schmaltzy little movie. I admit that it is effective at tugging the heart strings of the audience, which is a nice change from other films which simply pile on the adrenaline in savage appeals to our darker natures. Hedges also wrote and directed “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life” and wrote the better known “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” All his films are safely outside of the mainstream of Hollywood fare.
The one-hour, 40-minute movie features Jennifer Garner in one of her best roles, certainly a better role than Electra. She is the distraught mom of the boy from the garden. She and husband (quietly and strongly played by Joel Edgerton) live in a small town dominated by a failing pencil factory. They are ordinary in the plain sense of the word. They are not particularly smart nor beautiful nor rich, just regular folks trying to get along in life as best they can and not having a very easy time of it. The actors show that having each other, while not quite enough, is actually quite a bit and the couple does realize what a gift each is to the other. But the garden boy, perfect from their point of view, perks them up.
Twelve year old CJ Adams plays the boy with smiling cuteness. He and Peter Hedges also worked together in “Dan in Real Life.” His young lady friend, an older girl, becomes infatuated with the young boy — another fabulous part of the story. Thirteen-year-old girls fall for 15-year-old boys not 10-year-olds, as the garden boy is written. But what a knockout job Israeli-born Odeya Rush does in the role. We will see a lot more of her in the future, I hope.
Ron Livingston, a favorite of mine, plays the scion of the pencil family. M. Emmet Walsh is the uncle where the garden boy gets his sense of humor. There is a lovely scene between Walsh and Adams and the best lines of written dialog are with the two of them. Rapper Common plays the soccer coach. His career as an actor continues to gain credibility. I didn’t recognize him and thought him to be just another actor, a high compliment for someone making the crossover from music to film.
The three saw blade, one hanky film has a PG rating. Very small kids will not understand the movie. The producers risked $25 million making it and have gathered $15 million at the box office domestically. It has not gone overseas yet but this should be a solid moneymaker.
Writer Director Peter Hedges must be an interesting guy. He certainly is imaginative.
Enjoy a small film done with courage and imagination
This low-budget gem is more fun than a barrel. I enjoyed it and I think you will too. Especially at this time of year when we are submerged in big budget extravaganzas it is just plain lovely to take a break and enjoy a small film done with courage and imagination. This quirky little oddity is just that, like a dab of dessert after a big bowl of spaghetti.
I say small film rather than independent because this is a real movie made by experienced Hollywood pros rather than by film school genius drop-outs. Producer, writer, director Wes Anderson is well known for his sideways take on reality and his creation of memorable characters. He has directed such off-center hits as “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited.”
Producer Anderson held director Anderson to a tiny seeming $16 million budget, which has already scooped up a satisfying $55 million at the box office worldwide. This proves again that well crafted films will enrich their creators even if they are forced to use brilliance rather than brute bucks to build their dream work. Writer Anderson gives words to his actors to illuminate the story but director Anderson has his actors deliver the lines in a flat, unemotional way that reduces the actual acting to the most subtle, slightest degree of expression. This threw me a curve (he has a cast of very famous people who are terrific actors) until I matched the setting with the style. The action occurs on an island off the coast of Maine, a state known to be populated by people of a solid, laconic character.
The leads are two young newcomers. Kara Hayward plays Suzy, a 12-year-old who is misunderstood at home. Her love interest, Ben is a scout at a nearby camp. He is played by Jarad Gilman. The two troubled kids decide to improve their lot by running off together. This is not the “Blue Lagoon.” These kids are introspective and intellectual. Instead of exuberant emotional exploration, they engage in almost scientific preciseness, followed by a review of the new data.
The actors include Bill Murray as Ben’s father. He and mom Frances McDormand are both lawyers. Their three young sons open the film by listening to an instructional record explaining how a symphony orchestra works, and seem to enjoy it. They are that kind of parents. Bruce Willis plays the local policeman and lover of McDormand, although their romance seems to consist entirely of longing and shared cigarettes. Tilda Swinton is the government agent sent to rescue the young scout. Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton are scoutmasters. Norton particularly plays against his usual roles and here at least is a good and decent man. Jason Schwartzman, who has a long professional relationship with Wes Anderson, is another scoutmaster, one who aids and abets the fugitive children. Finally, Bob Balaban supplies the narration that keeps everything together. What a distinguished group, and a group that must have worked for cab fare to make this one-hour, 33-minute film possible.
The PG-13 drama has nothing to offend the wee ones but plenty to confuse them. I found this strong three and a half saw blade movie just the thing to engage my brain between the thunderous, frequently mind-numbing major films of the summer.
People frequently ask me why they don’t make good movies anymore. Folks, here it is. If you don’t watch it, they won’t make it.