Even the title of writer Dan Harris’ directorial debut is a takeoff on “Ordinary People,” but his treatment of a narrative about a suburban family reacting to the suicide of one of its sons in “Imaginary Heroes” is far different from the sober, serious approach of Robert Redford’s 1980 Oscar-winner. This film is like the older one viewed in a funhouse mirror, distorted in weird and sometimes wonderful ways. Its abrupt shifts of tone and startling revelations, which range from fairly crude farce to positively mawkish melodrama and include pretty much everything in between, never entirely gel, and as a result the film has a patchwork quality that can be infuriating. But it’s never bland or uninteresting, and works more often than not.
The film begins with the death of Matt Travis (Kip Pardue), a high school swimming champ for whom his hard-driving father Ben (Jeff Daniels) had harbored Olympic aspirations. His suicide sends Ben into an emotional tailspin and has a less obviously devastating but still severe effect on his wife Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), a worldly, cynical woman who reacts by, among other things, reverting to her marijuana usage of years lost past and haltingly connecting with Vern (Jay Paulson), a bag-boy at the local supermarket who–as we learn from another plot thread–is also suicidal. But at least Sandy seems aware of the emotional needs of younger son Tim (Emile Hirsch), who found his brother’s body and is dismissed by Ben as a failure in every respect. Tim, who sets the stage for the story with an over-written opening narration, is clearly a disaffected young man carrying some terrible burden. His relationship with his father is inexplicably poisonous, and that with his girlfriend (Suzanne Santo) more than a trifle uncertain; it’s also revealed that he’s been suffering abuse at the hands of somebody, perhaps the resident school bully. Tim’s only real friendship is with trouble-making next-door neighbor Kyle Dwyer (Ryan Donowho), who introduces him to drugs–among other things. But even that connection is undermined by the fact that for some reason Sandy is engaged in a virulent feud with Kyle’s flighty mother Marge (Deidre O’Connell), whose husband abandoned her and their son many years earlier for unexplained reasons, and by an untoward conclusion to the drunken revelry the boys share one evening. All of these plots and subplots are eventually tied together, though not without a considerable helping of contrivance, including a sudden illness that takes us for long, languid stretches into a hospital ward where, it appears, family differences can be more easily overcome through shared suffering and a realization of how much the characters need one another.
But if “Imaginary Heroes” doesn’t come close to matching films that are comparable to it in part, if not as a whole–“Danny Darko,” for example, is far more compelling and imaginative as a portrait of teenage angst, and “The Ice Storm” (in which Weaver also starred, of course) more acute and sensitive as a tale of suburban dysfunction–it has episodes that are richly humorous and dramatically incisive, and if it lacks consistency it at least takes risks. It’s a pity that in doing so the picture occasionally goes completely off the rails. (There’s a bizarre Christmas party sequence, for example, that’s rather like a cadenza gone utterly berserk.) But that’s better than simply playing it safe. Certainly Harris assembled a superb cast to flesh out his script. The role of the sharp-tongued, cooly troubled mother isn’t a new one for Weaver, but she does well by it again; conversely, Daniels seems a most unlikely choice for Ben, but he gives the part an intriguing twist. Hirsch demonstrates once more that he has the moody, tortured teen routine down pat, but he also clinches the occasional humorous touches in Tim, and Donowho, playing much the same hell-raising kid he did in “A House at the End of the World,” is as engaging as he was the first time around. The remainder of the cast is fine, though it’s only Paulson to whom Harris assigns some real nuggets. Michelle Williams is especially wasted as the Travis clan’s collegiate daughter. Technically there’s nothing special about the film, though the no-frills look might be intended to recall the gritty appearance of films from the 1970s.
“Imaginary Heroes” is in many respects a young man’s movie–prodigal with ideas, some of which come off while others fall flat. But it’s clearly the work of a filmmaker of promise, even if it hasn’t yet been fully realized.