Review: ‘The Secret Life of Houses’

Slow, ponderous and a bit pretentious, Adrian Velicescu's "The Secret Life of Houses" is yet another examination of a dysfunctional family, this time seen from the perspective of a lonely young girl. As a portrait of a daughter coming to terms with her mother's sudden death, the film is more impressive in its expressionistic visuals and evocative ambience than in its dramatic elements. Chances for theatrical release of this tawdry art film, which was initially made for TV, are middling.

Slow, ponderous and a bit pretentious, Adrian Velicescu’s “The Secret Life of Houses” is yet another examination of a dysfunctional family, this time seen from the perspective of a lonely young girl. As a portrait of a daughter coming to terms with her mother’s sudden death, the film is more impressive in its expressionistic visuals and evocative ambience than in its dramatic elements. Chances for theatrical release of this tawdry art film, which was initially made for TV, are middling.

Director, co-scripter, lenser and editor Velicescu explores the complex relationship between Margret (Remy Ryan) a sensitive 9-year-old, and her harsh, frustrated single mother (Laurie Metcalf). When her mother is abruptly rushed to the hospital, Margret not only decides to fend for herself but manages to conceal from the authorities that she lives by herself.

For the first half-hour or so, this moody drama rather effectively chronicles the solitary existence of Margret, who simply refuses to believe that her mother is going to die. As she rushes back and forth from her home to the hospital, Margret’s life is presented as a mysterious, often intriguing, labyrinth of childhood memories, wishful dreams and painful realities.

Margret’s secret, imaginative life is terminated by the arrival of Aunt Fergie (Shirley Knight), a greedy, rational, down-to-earth woman, who’s determined to take care of business as quickly and efficiently as possible, which includes liquidating the house, cremating the body, taking the remaining money and sending Margret to her unstable father in Detroit.

Defying a linear structure, Velicescu captures convincingly — in sporadic moments even poetically — the inner working of a girl’s psyche and soul when faced by abrupt, traumatic events. Keeping his camera close to Ryan’s beautifully expressive face, helmer shows the subjective perception — and reconstruction of reality — from her point of view.

But the juxtaposition of Margret’s lyrical world with the surrounding, unfeeling adult world is schematic and overly stressed. Though most of the grown-up characters are intended as caricatures, the farcical humor they bring to the story is often forced and external, and it clashes with the narrative’s rather gloomy nature, making the film jarringly incongruous.

As helmer, Velicescu exhibits a draggy, unmodulated style that ultimately becomes too detached and formal for such an intimate story. But he shows some talent in evoking mood: The film is marked by a European artistic sensibility.

Funded and produced by the Independent Television Service as part of its “TV Families” series, “The Secret Life of Houses” probably worked better in its shorter TV version.

The Secret Life of Houses

Production

A Tainbreaker Films production. Produced by Crocker Coulson. Co-producer, Charles E. McKittrick III. Directed, edited by Adrian Velicescu. Screenplay, Velicescu, Scott Bradfield, based on Bradfield's short story.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), Velicescu; production design, Sergio Onaga; coordinating producer (for ITVS), James Schamus. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, Jan. 29, 1994. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Margret ... Remy Ryan Ann ... Laurie Metcalf Aunt Fergie ... Shirley Knight David ... Joseph Culp Head Nurse ... Catherine Coulson
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