THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE

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B+

There are so many ways “This Is Where We Live” could have gone wrong that it’s rather amazing it never does. A small-scaled domestic drama about one troubled young man who develops a bond with another afflicted by cerebral palsy, it avoids the pitfall of becoming maudlin through extraordinary sensitivity in writing, directing and acting.

The locus of the action is a small town in central Texas, where the Sutton family struggles to survive. Diane (C.K. McFarland) tries to keep their tiny house in order—all the farmland around it has been long sold off—by working as a clerk in the local grocery store. She’s the chief caregiver for both her son Gus (Tobias Segal), who suffers from cerebral palsy, and her husband Bob (Ron Hayden), a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her daughter Lainey (Frankie Shaw) is of little help; she lies around the house all day, her attitude explained—as we eventually learn, though rather elliptically—by the loss of her infant child.

Into this example of people on the brink but never giving in to despair comes Noah (Marc Menchaca), a local handyman with family demons of his own. Hired to build a wheelchair ramp to the Sutton house’s front door, so that Diane, who suffers from high blood pressure and has been advised to do no heavy lifting, won’t have to cart Gus up the stairs, he interacts pleasantly with the young man, even though the boy can’t speak in response. Their connection is so palpable that Diane asks whether Noah might e available to sit with Gus during the day while she’s at work, and he agrees.

What follows might, if less deftly handled, have been the stuff of one of those old “disease-of-the-week” made for TV movies. That isn’t the case here, however. Menchaca’s script is knowing and subtle, avoiding overstatement while quietly showing both the strength and the weaknesses of the Suttons as they cope with their burdens. (Perhaps its most direct moment comes when the local preacher gives a homily saying that compared to Paul, none of us knows what suffering is.) A particularly insightful thread focuses on how Diane reacts to the increasing bond between Noah and Gus—her protectiveness gradually spilling over into something with a strong hint of jealousy. And as played, brilliantly, by Segal, Gus isn’t reduced to the status of a long-suffering saint; he can be willful and obstinate, and a bit cunning in getting his way.

Under the joint direction of Menchaca and Josh Barrett, the performances are all superb. McFarland and Segal dominate all of their scenes, but Menchaca is equally effective as the outsider who effectively becomes a member of this new family, and Hayden is extraordinarily convincing as a man with only occasional moments of lucidity. Shaw makes Lainey’s self-loathing palpable while managing to show her halting efforts to surmount it.

For a film obviously made on an extremely low budget, “This Is Where We Live”—a title drawn from a note Gus composes using a letterboard he points to in order to express himself—creates a real sense of place, with cinematographer Ryan Booth making excellent use of the hardscrabble locales around Austin, which seems light years away from the place Noah and the Suttons inhabit. The music—credited to Brian Elmquist, Brian Murphy and Kanine Pipkin—is unobtrusive except when it gives over to ambient sounds coming from radios and jukeboxes.

You’ll need to search out the film, which is being released on a city-by-city basis without studio support. But it’s well worth the effort. This is an admirably restrained, respectful portrait of the kinds of Americans contemporary films generally avoid showing us at all—or if they do, treat with heavy-handed mawkishness.