John G. Young's sophomore outing "The Reception," an imposing no-budget four-hander, unfolds with authority and grace. While the dialogue-heavy, two-couples-in-a-single-location, "Virginia Woolf"-ish setup inevitably implies filmed theater, "Reception" cinematically embraces its artificial isolation.
John G. Young’s sophomore outing “The Reception” (after 1998’s “Parallel Sons”), an imposing no-budget four-hander, unfolds with authority and grace. An odd couple, an alcoholic French woman and a gay black American painter sharing affection and pain in a country house in upper state New York, are visited by her estranged daughter with new black hubby in tow. While the dialogue-heavy, two-couples-in-a-single-location, “Virginia Woolf”-ish setup inevitably implies filmed theater, “Reception” cinematically embraces its artificial isolation. Superb emotional thesping complements script’s measured restraint, but in the absence of name players Strand’s skedded limited summer release will rely on critical support.
When relatively sober, Jeannette (Pamela Holden Stewart) exudes knowing charm and wry self-awareness that are extremely attractive. Terrified of being alone, she clings to Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), whose compassion seems infinite. Indeed, he can be counted on to forgive her for her frequent inebriated attacks of virulent truth-telling.
Martin, in turn, suffers secretly from painter’s block. He rationalizes that his creative paralysis is due to his need to be there for Jeannette. Their locked-in co-dependency is shattered by the arrival of Jeannette’s long-alienated daughter Sierra (Margaret Burkwit) and her supposed new husband Andrew (Darien Sills-Evans).
Young doesn’t deal in big dramatic revelations, his characters’ evasions, lies and half-truths amounting to little more than the small change of emotional dysfunction. Giving his actors plenty of breathing room, he allows them to develop organically, never rushing them into confrontations or tell-all self-explanations. Confidently cooking gourmet meals or contemplatively chopping wood, they possess an inner self-sufficiency that plays well onscreen.
Sim’s Martin is particularly affecting, his face radiating sympathy and tenderness with just enough self-hatred to give his personality a slightly problematic edge. Stewart’s Jeannette is so convincingly Gallic in inflection, in gesture, and in what she takes for granted that her ultra-Anglo name comes as something of a shock.
Nuanced line readings, comfortable silences and concisely referenced backstories further take the pressure off the need for heavy signifying. Amazingly free of the bitterness that often informs such claustrophobic gabfests, pic finally and decisively espouses intimacy over confrontation, any excess touchy-feely sentimentality channeled into unexpected sexual pairings.
At a time when Hollywood’s attempts to slickly mainstream “adult” relationship films about artists and artsy intellectuals (“Door in the Floor” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Closer”) are hamstrung by a dour, almost unconscious Puritanism, Young’s small-scale, effortlessly cosmopolitan grasp of marginal lifestyles and alternative sexuality is comforting by dint of its occasional clumsiness.
Tech credits belie pic’s shoestring resources.