Thursday, March 25, 2010

ND/NF ’10: 3 Backyards

Prepare to venture someplace exotic: suburbia. Though the quiet Long Island neighbor is not far from The City, it is presented as someplace more remote than Tasmania in Eric Mendelsohn’s 3 Backyards, which screens during New Directors New Films this year.

John does not want to talk. His marriage is experiencing a bit of a rough patch. Though the specifics are hazy, it is probably safe to say communication is an issue. Much to his wife’s frustration, he is using a business trip to avoid uncomfortable conversations. He even accepts a free hotel room when his flight is cancelled, rather than return home to his wife. Of course, they are not the only ones on the block with issues.

Peggy is an amateur artist obsessed with a movie star staying in the neighborhood incognito. When the celebrity asks her for a lift to the ferry, she leaps at the chance to forge a bond with the actress. Meanwhile Christina, a young school girl, is alarmed to discover she dropped her mother’s expensive bracelet in the backyard of a creepy teenager of ambiguous mental capacity on her way to school.

As Christina, Rachel Resheff proves to be a very engaging young actress. Unfortunately, her rather flat story arc is undoubtedly the film’s least developed. While the actress’s story has a sharp edge to it, Edie Falco (a.k.a. Carmella Soprano) painfully overplays as the self-esteem challenged Peggy. In contrast, the comparatively understated Embeth Davidtz is quite effective as the mysterious actress. By far though, the most successful scenes in Backyards feature the quietly intense Elias Koteas as John, the only character to undergo an interesting transformation during the course of the film.

Evidently aware of the frequent depictions of suburban angst in indie film, Mendelsohn gives Backyards a truly distinctive visual style, focusing on the lushness of the nature seemingly just held at bay at the outskirts of the neighborhood. Indeed, cinematographer Kasper Tuxen’s painterly use of sunlight is quite striking. The flute and string score composed by Michael Nicholas gives the film an additional layer of classy polish (even though it is distractingly loud in the overall audio mix).

Superficially, Backyards looks and sounds quite pretty, but it does not have much depth. Still, there is some nice work in the film, particularly from Koteas and Resheff. Ultimately, what probably could have been two decent shorts have been padded together with a third sketch into a rather languid full length feature. An excursion to all-too familiar indie terrain, Backyards screens tomorrow (3/26) at the Walter Reade Theater and Sunday (3/28) at MoMA.