John G. Young has fashioned an intriguing though overly schematic ensemble drama in “The Reception,” which deals with the strained relationships among two couples–an older French woman, apparently a writer, and her gay companion, a painter, on the one hand, and her estranged daughter and supposed new husband on the other–over the course of several days at the mother’s isolated rural farmhouse in upstate New York. (It all also happens to unfold in the depths of winter.) The title is pregnant with meanings–the welcome the resident couple offer the newcomers, a gathering the mother plans in honor of her daughter’s nuptials, an inheritance the younger woman hopes to get. But at its core the picture isn’t much more than a high-toned soap opera, but it’s a relatively sophisticated and occasionally affecting one.
We’re first introduced to Jeannette (Pamela Holden Stewart), the worldly but alcoholic owner of the estate, who nurses a disdain for men since her long-ago divorce but has found a supportive partner in Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), a gay African-American painter who’s been with her for years and seems willing to put up with her explosive temper and deal with her bouts of drunkenness and despair, especially since she supports his work in a studio that’s she recognizes as his exclusive domain. Into this solitude comes Sierra (Margaret Burkwit), Jeannette’s long-estranged daughter, whom the woman abandoned to her father’s care following an acrimonious parting from her husband. And she doesn’t come alone: she’s accompanied by Andrew (Darien Sills-Evans), a black law student whom she introduces as her husband. The marriage has an important consequence, since Sierra’s taking a husband is a condition for her receipt of a large inheritance from her grandmother. The young couple plan only a brief stay, but Jeannette insists that they remain until the weekend so that she can host a proper celebration of her daughter’s wedding.
The following days are, predictably, the occasion for recriminations between mother and daughter. But there’s much else beside. Secrets are revealed about both Martin’s artistic work and his physical condition. Those hidden matters pale, however, beside the secret being kept by Sierra and Andrew–the revelation of which will test Martin’s ability to continue suppressing his own needs in order to satisfy Jeannette’s. Before the film ends all the principals are forced to confront fundamental issues of identity and responsibility.
There’s a good deal of contrivance in Young’s screenplay, and not all of the twists will come as a great surprise to acute viewers, especially those familiar with soap-opera conventions. Still, “The Reception” differs from the ordinary daytime drama in the sensitivity of the writing and acting. It’s nice to see a film in which racial differences and sexual preferences are accepted without difficulty or even much comment, and Young generally eschews overwrought moments, and when they occasionally occur (mostly involving Jeannette’s drunken outbursts, though Andrew has a couple, too) he and his cast handle them with considerable nuance. Stewart manages to make Jeannette both manipulative and strangely affecting, and she handles her big scene involving an admiring gentleman caller (Chris Burkmeister) whom she wrongly castigates for his treatment of his wife–something that could have gone very wrong–quite skillfully. The three younger performers aren’t quite so successful, but that’s partially because they’re opaque figures hiding the truth, and their motivations are uncovered only gradually. Cinematographer Derek Wiesenhan, working on high-definition video, makes good use of the cold, crisp locales and rather cramped interiors, and editor J. Blake Fichera has cut the footage expertly down to a brisk 75 minutes.
There may not be a great deal to “The Reception” but talk, but it’s more sophisticated talk than you get in run-of-the-mill domestic dramas. If you’re looking for an intelligently-played respite from Hollywood’s special-effects extravaganzas, this restrained, modest picture will do nicely.