Artfully intertwining fates of disparate characters who must come to terms with the past if they want any shot at future happiness, Eric Schaeffer's pic is a sharply observed comedy-drama with obvious structural and thematic similarities to "Magnolia." Without marquee names to exploit, pic will require careful handling and supportive press.

Artfully intertwining fates of disparate characters who must come to terms with the past if they want any shot at future happiness, Eric Schaeffer’s “Mind the Gap” is a deeply felt and sharply observed comedy-drama with obvious structural and thematic similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” Warm-hearted but clear-eyed indie effort richly repays audience patience during deliberately paced and provocatively allusive early scenes with a cumulative emotional impact that is immensely satisfying. Without marquee names to exploit, however, pic will require careful handling and supportive press to achieve traction in theatrical marketplace.

Worlds away from the smart-alecky and scatological humor of “My Life’s in Turnaround” (1993), Schaeffer’s first and arguably best-known feature, “Mind the Gap” is more of a piece with his “Never Again,” an underrated 2002 release about the wary romance of two commitment-shy fiftysomethings (Jill Clayburgh, Jeffrey Tambor). New opus is appreciably more serious — at times, even borderline tragic — yet laced with sufficient comic relief to avoid undue solemnity.

Schaeffer cast himself as Sam Blue, a drolly whimsical single father in small-town Vermont who’s as much jokey buddy as devoted parent to 10-year-old Rocky (Christopher Kovaleski). Early on, aud learns Rocky was conceived from an egg Sam bought online from an unknown donor. Only gradually does pic reveal why Sam avoids traditional contact with women — and why, for Rocky’s sake, he might have to reconsider his singleton status.

Jody Buller (Jill Sobule), a shy street performer in Astoria, N.Y., has different reasons for avoiding romantic entanglements: Implanted with a pacemaker at a relatively young age, she’s convinced a broken heart could be fatal for her. But she repeatedly tests her ticker by sprinting through her neighborhood, despite warnings from her cardiologist.

Across the river in Manhattan, crotchety retiree Herb Schweitzer (Alan King) can barely walk to the end of his block in less than an hour. Even so, he’s determined to fulfill a promise to a late friend by walking a lengthy distance — even if it kills him. This storyline is pic’s most lightweight, but King keeps it interesting by adamantly refusing to play Herb as a lovable coot. Indeed, character often comes across as annoyingly irascible, and Schaeffer doesn’t make any excuses for him.

Pic’s most dramatically gripping and emotionally affecting scenes belong to Elizabeth Reaser and Charles Parnell, relative unknowns who could receive career boosts if their splendid work here gets exposure.

Reaser is by turns endearing and heartwrenching as Malissa Zubach, a chipper eccentric who manages to stay hopeful as she tends to her dying mother in their North Carolina trailer home. While her mom is chronically hostile and hurtful, Malissa dreams of escaping to faraway places. She even asks strangers to mail her tape recordings of everyday life in such “exotic” locales as a restaurant in Beijing or a train station in London. (Latter inspires pic’s title, which refers to recorded warning to passengers boarding subways.)

Meanwhile, John McCabe (Parnell) struggles to forgive himself for causing the breakup of his marriage. Fortunately, John gets good advice from a tough-loving priest about finding peace by making apologies.

Here and elsewhere in “Mind the Gap,” Schaefer takes a disarmingly matter-of-fact approach to moral and spiritual concerns, suggesting approval of any belief system — Christianity, New Age mysticism, nondenominational humanism, whatever — that gives one the courage and wisdom to make amends, seek closure and then move on. Without getting hung up on specifics of metaphysics, pic subtly and intelligently underscores universal human needs and desires, proclivities and frailties.

It’s not surprising that “Mind the Gap” eventually brings each of its central characters to the same locale — Manhattan, of course — for resolution. However, Schaeffer avoids the obvious, and even springs one or two surprises, while interconnecting storylines in unpredictable ways. A few minor contrivances are hard to ignore, but they fail to break pic’s quietly magical spell.

Tech values are first-rate across the board. Of special note is evocative music by Veigar Margeirsson, augmented by soulful kirtans chanted by Krishna Das. Score does much to enhance shifting moods and teasing mysteries of a pic that seems charged with alternating currents of wonder and dread, anxiety and exuberance.

Mind the Gap

Production

A Five Minutes Before the Miracle production in association with Terence Michael Prods. Produced by Eric Schaeffer, Terence Michael, Chip Hourihan, Bob Kravitz. Executive producers, Pierre Romaine, Brenda Kravitz, Noel Ashman. Directed, written by Eric Schaeffer.

Crew

Camera (color), Mark Blandori; editor, Mitch Stanley; music, Veigar Margeirsson; additional music, Krishna Das; production designer, Tamar Gadish; art director, Matthew Budgeon; costume designer, Tara Grodt; sound (Dolby), Anthony Viera; casting, Sheila Jafe, Nikki Ghisel. Reviewed at South by Southwest Film Festival (competing), Austin, Texas, March 13, 2004. Running time: 134 MIN.

With

Herb Schweitzer - Alan King Malissa Zubach - Elizabeth Reaser Sam Blue - Eric Schaeffer Rocky Blue - Christopher Kovaleski John McCabe - Charles Parnell Jody Buller - Jill Sobule Vicki Walters - Kim Raver Henry Richards - John Heard Dr. Albertson - Todd Weeks Dana - Mina Badie Mother Zubach - Deirdre Kingsbury Deniese - Yolanda Ross

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