- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

Suburbs-stink movies (think “American Beauty,” “The Safety of Objects”) haven’t caught up with how life is lived in actual suburbs, but the genre is surprisingly durable.

In “Imaginary Heroes,” his feature-length directing debut, writer-director Dan Harris (scripter of “X2: X-Men United”) injects the form with real sensitivity and pathos, rather than “Beauty’s” robotic desperation. His one glaring slip-up — typical of movies as recent as “Million Dollar Baby” and, also opening today, “Hostage” — is a contempt for working-class whites. His insight is that suburbs, at least the upper-crusty ones, are inhabited by lots of ex-hippies, not repressed Puritans.

With that in mind, meet Sigourney Weaver, ravishingly feminine rather than “Alien” butch, as Sandy Travis. Sandy is the middle-aged matriarch of a seemingly ideal family — two boys and a girl, plush house, successful husband (underappreciated Jeff Daniels) — with a devastating secret at its core. Mr. Harris’ script, archly funny and tragic, eventually reveals this secret but not before an introductory catastrophe: the suicide of son Matt (Kip Pardue).

High-school senior Tim Travis (Emile Hirsch), who narrates, wonders at the beginning how Matt, a champion swimmer, can be so talented at something and yet find it, and life, so joyless. We never really learn the answer to the question because this is Tim’s movie; all revolves around him and his adolescent torments.

Tim more or less doubts his heterosexuality; has mysterious bruises on his body that may be the gifts of a trailer-park bully; and finds communication with Dad to be harder than pre-calculus. His sister Penny (Michelle Williams), away at college, has escaped the force field of the Travises; on return for holidays and funerals, her boredom with family life is palpable.

Ben (Mr. Daniels), who clearly, and somewhat cruelly, favored all-American Matt over longhaired, journal-scribbling Tim, takes Matt’s death the worst and compounds the family’s problem — disconnectedness — by hoarding rather than sharing his grief.

The Travises, in short, have everything except what they need most: each other. Not just those breakaway intrafamily blocs, but the whole unit, intact, communicative and supportive.

Eventually, Sandy, who is this close to fisticuffs with next-door neighbor Marge (Deirdre O’Connell), will end up stoned under the stars on her front lawn and trying to score pot in a dodgy head shop. (These are coping mechanisms for Sandy, not expressions of nihilism, as with Kevin Spacey in “Beauty.”)

Tim will flirt with Ecstasy and more than flirt with Marge’s son Kyle (Ryan Donowho), his best friend, even more lost and reckless than he. There’s one too many intoxicated rumination sessions between Tim and Kyle, Tim and Penny and Tim and Sandy (Mr. Hirsch and Miss Weaver are particularly excellent together). Before movie’s end, you will know the print of the local hospital gowns like they’re your favorite robe. (Without giving anything specific away, there’s a car wreck, a cancer scare and even another suicide.)

Mr. Harris, talented but inexperienced, didn’t know when to shut off the faucet of his thoughts. He says too much, grafts on too much, including a pointless musical number with New York underground cabaret act Kiki and Herb, plus a character (Jay Paulson’s Vern) from one of his short films.

Still, this movie’s resolution will rend your heart and, possibly, renew your faith in the ‘burbs.

***

TITLE: “Imaginary Heroes”

RATING: R (Substance abuse; sexual content; profanity; some violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Dan Harris. Produced by Illana Diamont, Moshe Diamont, Frank Hubner, Art Linson, Gina Resnick and Denise Shaw. Cinematography by Tim Orr. Original music by Deborah Lurie.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/imaginary/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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