MOVIE REVIEW: The Middle Distance

(Photo courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

51st Chicago International Film Festival New Directors Competition special presentation


Patrick Underwood's debut film, "The Middle Distance," makes its world premiere as an entry in the New Directors Competition this week at the 51st Chicago International Festival.  The film covers the familiar narrative angle of a man coming back home after forgoing his small-town roots for the glitz of the big city.  Such a premise calls to mind quotes like this from "You Can't Go Home Again" by author Thomas Wolfe:

"But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again."

We've seen this hook before, from the wacky ("Grosse Point Blank") to the caustic ("Young Adult"), the moving ("The Lion King") and everything else in between.  "The Middle Distance" is a keenly welcome addition to this well-traveled motif.

Ross Partridge, a TV actor and independent filmmaker who will soon be seen in "Secret in Their Eyes" alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts, stars as Neil Mercer.  He is a high-paid, short-worded business consultant and unmarried smooth operator working in Los Angeles.  Whiskey is his poison and, in his own words, "money is just a way of keeping score" to give him the sense that he is better than everyone else.  You know the type.  Neil is the cocksure asshole with a vacant companionship for no one.  While bedding his latest hookup, he receives the news that his father has passed away.

In short order, this sends Neil back home to the small-town winter landscape of New Buffalo, Michigan, a place he couldn't wait to leave after wasting his time there as a exuberant younger man.  To settle affairs, Neil and his little brother James (Kentucker Adley, indie actor/filmmaker most recently seen in "Queen of Earth") have been tasked with fixing up their father's idyllic cottage to sell.  Their third wheel is James's photographer fiance Rebecca (the plucky Joslyn Jensen).  Neil is that classic snob who isn't sentimental, nostalgic, or much of a meaningful big brother to James anymore.  Neil plays like he isn't home for the woulda-coulda-shouldas.  He wants to tout his L.A. swagger and get out of Michigan again.  

When James has to head out of town for music gig, what Neil thinks will be a quick two-day trip becomes a week stuck at home.  Left to their own devices and long to-do list without an available handyman, Neil and Rebecca trudge their way through getting their hands dirty.  Stuck spending time together, the two try on each other's company, patience, and emotions on for size.  Pleasantries turn into quips, throwaway conversations turn into soul-baring shares, and tolerance turns into understanding between Neil and Rebecca.  Smiles emerge over groans and they soon find themselves changing their initial negative judgments of each other and gain an unlikely kindred spirit.

Ross Patridge and Joslyn Jensen take over to fill "The Middle Distance" with pleasantly assured performances.  Both convey the director's simple overtones and never overact or overplay their hands.  They let their personalities blossom right alongside those of their characters.  Honestly, bigger names in these roles would try too hard and blow things out of proportion.  The innate smartness with both Patridge and Jensen hold that in check nicely.

There is a tangible and winsome spirit that emerges through this quick 80-minute journey of "The Middle Distance."  As previously stated recently in this website's review of "Embers," another entry in the New Directors Competition at the 51st CIFF, first-time director Patrick Underwood rightly sticks to artistic vision and solid storytelling over cheap tricks and the urge to throw monkey wrenches at everything for the sake of standing out.  An easy story such as this doesn't need overindulgence.  Shot on location in Michigan with a still, static cinematography, clean sound, and backed by an easy coffeehouse/indie soundtrack balanced between melancholy and optimism, Underwood succeeds painting a tone and ambiance to match the simple setting and story arch.  "The Middle Distance" sharply avoids unrealistic character twists and measures the right amount of melodrama to avoid coming off like an amateur hour-ish TV drama episode.  There is a confident strength on display to trust both writing and performance.  

"The Middle Distance" debuts on October 23 at 6:00pm at the AMC River East hub of the 51st CIFF.  It will get two encore showings on October 24 at 12:30pm and October 26 at 2:30pm.  Tickets are still available for all three screenings.  Seek out this highly recommended little winner and hidden gem.  

LESSON #1: THE UNWAVERING DRAW OF OUR CHILDHOOD HOME-- Go back and read that Wolfe quote that opened this review.  No matter the cynicism, there is a lasting, unshakable attachment to the home where we spent our innocent and formative years of youth.  Even if the bad memories outnumber the good ones, the effect and draw of our childhood home never goes away.  Home might be where you make it and the connection to your first may fade, but it never breaks.  Such a bond is nearly instinctual and makes us disagree with the title of Wolfe's book.

LESSON #2: FINDING KINSHIP THROUGH SHARED AMBITION-- Two different people from different walks of life can find connection when they learn and see similarities in their current or former ambitions.  Even if there is a gap or a few hurdles between personalities, much like the film's title suggests, common middle ground can be found for friendship and kinship.  We're not talking about soulmates here, just a good legitimate mutual respect.  In digging into what makes each other tick or how they turned out they way they are at this stage of adulthood, Neil and Rebecca share their stories and find common dreams and strengths.  

LESSON #3: THE PEOPLE THAT SAY THEY DON'T CARE ARE ACTUALLY THE ONES THAT CARE THE MOST UNDERNEATH-- Take this reviewer's experience as a former elementary school teacher to heart and heed this lesson's advice.  When you hear someone drop the "I don't care" attitude, call their bluff.  They say they don't care what people think when they really do.  More often than not, those people are the one's that actually care the most.  They just need things to play out or be done their way.  They are used to control and not used to accepting the help and conclusions of other people.  If Neil was a real asshole, he would have left instead of staying.  He feels Lesson #1 and actually cares.  He sees the bigger needs through.  That self-imposed independence whittles away with the quality time he spends back at home.