“Luminous Motion” certainly isn’t luminous, and its only motion is its movement away from being an acceptable mom ‘n’ kid road movie to becoming a progressively silly and needlessly obscure psychodrama. N.Y.-based Bette Gordon’s sophomore outing trades on some of the same notions of a fantasy life as her first movie, “Variety” (1983), but though the result is several notches above that self-consciously arty mishmash, this adaptation of Scott Bradfield’s novel is flawed by the miscasting of Deborah Kara Unger as an alcoholic mom and the lack of a thoroughgoing visual style to replicate the original book’s unreal tone. Pic’s theatrical life will be one of stasis.
In a role that required an actress like Karen Black in the ’70s, the mannequin-like Unger, whose idea of a lush/tramp is half-closed eyes and a few loose strands of hair, essays Margaret, mother of precocious 10-year-old Phillip (Eric Lloyd), who teaches himself biology and physics while the pair motor around in a beat-up Chevy and Mom seduces johns out of their credit cards. Fugitives from domesticity, they’re bound by mutual love and a mutual dislike of the Middle American dream. “Only two things mattered to me,” says the kid in voiceover. “Being with my mom, and being in motion.”
After crashing the car, they end up putting down some roots with the well-meaning Pedro (Terry Kinney), a hardware store owner in Hackensack, N.J. Phillip also starts getting mysterious phone calls and letters from his dad (Jamey Sheridan), who may or may not be dead, and finally mother and son leave Pedro and settle in a regular house on Staten Island.
To this point, pic has been a mildly offbeat road yarn, shot through with ’70 s retro resonance and slightly elevated dialogue tweaked with dime-store philosophy: Mom and kid see themselves as part of a broader universe, with basic truths and eternities, that can be attained only when in perpetual motion. Hereon, however, the movie starts to jump the rails, as Pedro reappears as a ghost in Phillip’s imagination, the kid falls in with some weird teen neighbors (James Berland, Paz De La Huerta), and Dad turns up to put the seal on mother and son’s fledgling domesticity. Phillip decides on a radical solution to Mom’s being sucked into Dad’s “vortex.”
With a more believable female lead, and a more involving visual signature, some of this may have worked. In a confident performance that dominates the action, Lloyd is excellent as the kid, but few of the rest of the cast — apart from Kinney as Pedro — hit the irreal, “Garp”-ish tone that this kind of metaphysical movie requires. A lack of genuine, leavening humor is also missed.
Technically, the film isOK on a budget. Portrayal of Phillip’s “ghosts” is inventively done with overlapping, out-of-phase images.