It’s getting more and more difficult for little independent movies to make a mark nowadays, as there are so many of them about; so it’s not surprising that their makers resort increasingly to gimmicks to set their work apart and get it some added attention. The tactic used by Andrew Wagner, who wrote, produced, directed, and shot this little effort (also appearing in it, though briefly) is to cast his own family members in the lead parts. This compels those watching to ask themselves the inevitable questions. How much of what we’re being shown is autobiographical, and how much invented? How close are the people in the cast to their characters? How much of the dialogue is improvised, and how much Wagner’s creation? The effect is necessarily to make the viewer feel even more the voyeur than unusual, and it’s certainly enough to attract media notice.
The story is surely simple enough. Judy and Allen, the latter retired from a stock trader’s job and severely impaired physically, have one grown daughter living near them in New York and a son and another daughter in California. Allen, troubled not only by his health but by money worries that he keeps to himself, impulsively trades in their car for an SUV just as their West Coast daughter arrives for a visit; but almost immediately after picking her up Judy decides that they should all drive to Los Angeles to visit Allen, whom they’ve not seen in years. Much of the rest of the picture is taken up with their long road trip, during which they not only pick up a couple of acquaintances–a girl named Bumby (Judy Dixon), who’s just been fired from the set of “Field of Dreams 2” in Iowa, and actor Billy Wirth, whom they bump into by chance in New Mexico–but reveal the family’s tortured past, most notably an act of infidelity that’s colored the marriage ever since. The final section of the picture involves their futile search for Allen in Los Angeles and return to the east, where Judy and Allen find a surprise awaiting them.
“The Talent Given Us” certainly doesn’t paint the family in pretty or delicate tones, and one has to admit a degree of fascination in watching the dynamics of the Wagner clan work themselves out, especially since the script makes so little effort to keep events very tidy or organized. In many respects the film is, as a writer once described history, just one damned thing after another, and the action can seem chaotic. (There’s an episode involving a hospital that seems to have no explanation whatever.) On the other hand, the movie has moments that are truly remarkable—a brief encounter between Allen and Bumpy is perhaps the most notable. And that scene demonstrates something else–that amateurs Allen and Judy can easily hold their own against the professionals in the cast (the two daughters, Dixon and Wirth). But on balance the nuggets are embedded in just too much dross, especially the attention bestowed on Judy and the daughters, whose self-absorption and short-temperedness quickly become irritating. And then there’s the nagging issue of where Wagner puts himself in the equation. He’s effectively the movie’s Holy Grail, the goal toward which everyone is aiming–but what little we eventually see of him (in a tape of one of his classes at a local college) isn’t terribly engaging, and when we get a glimpse of the scripts he’s written stacked in his apartment closet, each of them looks so sizable that a film made of it would rival “Berlin Alexanderplatz” in length. There seems to be just a hint of self-glorification at work here.
So this little movie is pretty much a stunt, and not an entirely successful one. But it will probably garner considerable attention, and if the journey’s a bumpy one, it at least may persuade you that spending time with your own family isn’t so bad, after all.