Low on plot but high on charm and personality, "Next Stop Wonderland" is a sly, hand-crafted indie that is very alive and attentive to its characters' feelings and foibles.

Low on plot but high on charm and personality, “Next Stop Wonderland” is a sly, hand-crafted indie that is very alive and attentive to its characters’ feelings and foibles. A considerably more mainstream and professional-looking picture than “The Darien Gap,” director Brad Anderson’s impressive first feature that debuted at Sundance two years ago, new item is nonetheless just as individualistic and appealing. Although pic is probably too light to carve out significant commercial territory, Miramax, which picked it up after the first Sundance screening, should be able to give it a good profile and locate a certain niche audience, particularly among young female viewers.

Very much a regional filmmaker whose Boston home base figures strongly in both of his pictures, Anderson brings an organic, intimate, wryly amused feel to his work. While clever and dexterous in his use of cinema, particularly in the editing, Anderson seems most interested in making his characters come to life in whatever moments they have onscreen, an approach that makes his films breathe in an invigorating way. In their emphasis on finding telling human moments and discovering the comedy in everyday life, his work is closer in spirit to the Eastern Europeans of the late ’60s or to the more naturalistic films of Truffaut than to the trendier models held up by most young filmmakers today.

Focus here is mostly on Erin (Hope Davis), an attractive, 30ish registered nurse who sinks into a prolonged funk when her political-activist boyfriend dumps her. Her mother, Piper (Holland Taylor), who runs a successful modeling agency, may be rather overbearing but also is sophisticated and does much better with men than Erin does. Brooking no nonsense, the briefly visiting Piper places a personal ad in the paper for her daughter, but Erin has no intention of following up on it.

At the same time, pic follows the busy life of Alan, a former plumber and current employee at the local aquarium who, in his 30s, has decided to go to school in order to pursue his dream of becoming a marine biologist. Unavoidably involved in some unsavory local politics involving the expansion of the aquarium, plagued by debt and besieged by a saucy young lady from school who won’t leave him alone, Alan maintains an upbeat attitude despite the burdens he faces every day.

Erin and Alan’s entirely unrelated paths almost cross on more than one occasion, and while the film seems headed toward bringing them together, it is in fact dedicated to keeping them apart until the final, enigmatic moment. Such weighty themes as destiny, the randomness of life and the importance of willpower lurk in the background waiting to jump out, but Anderson treats them all in an offhand way, acknowledging them but never taking them too seriously.

On paper, the incidents that make up the film’s fabric seem too cute and insignificant by half, and some viewers will no doubt become impatient with the lack of an accelerating narrative; indeed, pic could use a few nips and tucks to maximize its potential. But Anderson possesses an almost unerring touch for the emotional truthfulness of the scenes he creates, and adroitly sidesteps innumerable opportunities to indulge in cliched or superficial treatment of familiar moments.

One very funny highlight is the prolonged series of scenes devoted to the men who answer the personal ad. Interlude takes the form of the sort of audition-montage sequence that has been featured in any number of movies, in which the candidates are glimpsed for a few seconds apiece. Anderson however, allows at least some of the barroom interchanges between Erin and the male hopefuls to play out at length, so that the viewer can learn a bit about these gentlemen as well as come to sympathize deeply with her despair at ever meeting a suitable guy.

In the unlikeliest of circumstances, Erin finally meets a fellow who seems crazy about her and at least engages her interest. Andre (Jose Zuniga) is a friendly Brazilian who is returning to Sao Paulo in a matter of days and impulsively asks Erin to come with him. Whether she does or doesn’t go to meet him at the airport constitutes the film’s climax, but the Brazilian connection works well in any case due to Erin’s infatuation with Brazilian bossa nova and samba music, which beautifully fills the film’s soundtrack. The music’s sexy romanticism works in excellent counterpoint to the frustrating and disappointing events with which Erin and Alan must contend. Film’s tone reflects saudade, the Brazilian term for melancholy, which, as Andre explains, “means sadness and happiness at the same time.”

Although the episodes involving Alan’s shenanigans with the aquarium, the hoodlum loan shark who is after him and his voracious fellow classmate are amusing enough, the Erin strand of the picture is far more engaging, in large measure due to the resonant saudade of Davis’ performance. Deadpan and unemotive much of the time, she nonetheless brings her sulky character to exquisite and funny life; Erin is far from a fully realized woman, but Davis illuminates the somewhat submerged spark that reveals anything may still be possible for her.

Anderson makes liberal and sometimes witty use of jump cuts, and moves around many Boston locations to supply the film with an interesting backdrop. Tech quality is solid.

Next Stop Wonderland

Production

A Miramax release of a Robbins Entertainment production. Produced by Mitchell B. Robbins. Co-producers, Laura Bernieri, Rachel Horovitz. Directed by Brad Anderson. Screenplay, Anderson, Lyn Vaus.

Crew

Camera (color), Uta Briesewitz; editor, Anderson; music, Claudio Ragazzi; music consultant, Beco Dranoff; production design, Chad Detweiller; associate producer, Ari Newman; line producer, Mark Donado; assistant director, Michael Ross; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Georgianna Walken. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 1998. Running time: 111 min.

With

Erin Castleton - Hope Davis Alan Monteiro - Alan Gelfant Frank - Victor Argo Eric - Jon Benjamin Julie - Cara Buono Brett - Larry Gilliard Jr. Sean - Phil Hoffman Rory - Jason Lewis Ray Thornback - Roger Rees Kevin Monteiro - Sam Seder Robert - Robert Stanton Piper Castleton - Holland Taylor Cricket - Callie Thorne Lowrey the Bartender - Jimmy Tingle Daryl - Lyn Vaus Andre De Silva - Jose Zuniga Arty Lesser - Robert Klein

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