Taking on a larger and more unwieldy family tree than he dramatized in “The Visit,” writer-director Jordan Walker-Pearlman’s ambitious “Constellation” explores the legacy of a forbidden, 40-year-old biracial love affair and its effect on an extended family reuniting at a funeral. Old concept is mildly updated with a complicated network of relations and a guiding sense that many contempo Southern kin are a blend of black and white. Exceptionally strong cast is pic’s beating heart and the key to luring a distrib, which could mine limited B.O. based on enthusiastic critical support.
Auds are likely to lose track of who is related to whom at the Huntsville, Ala. funeral of beloved Carmel Boxer (Gabrielle Union), who had an unrequited romance with a dashing white Army recruit named Bear (Daniel Bess as the younger Bear, David Clennon as Bear in the present). Even after their tragic separation, Carmel continued writing him letters (all unanswered) over the years, missives narrated gracefully by Union.
Carmel’s brother Helms (Billy Dee Williams) is now estranged from the family, uneasily greeting ex-wife Nancy (Lesley Ann Warren) and daughters Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and Lucy (Melissa De Sousa), along with the more recent love in his life Jenita (Rae Dawn Chong), and wanting nothing to do with Bear or his niece Celeste (Ever Carradine).
Even though Helms is the family member who wants least to be here, Carmel has requested he take care of her estate. The family knows of his unease, and tricks him thinking the burial has already taken place (until talkative and eager-to-please Lucy blurts out the truth over dinner).
Walker-Pearlman is clearly aware of his ensemble’s abilities, and lets them go for some uncommonly long scenes of dialogue — and thoughtful silences — that encompass a wide range of rich feelings. The most intriguing of these revolve around Rosa and her ex-b.f. Errol (Hill Harper), who wants dearly to recover their past love, but has a difficult time convincing Rosa.
The moments between Harper and Saldana best express the film’s oft-repeated theme of unrequited love. But like a string quartet stuck on a measure, the theme is so often re-stated that “Constellation” becomes a mannered film with limited imagination, dogged by an oddly jagged pace that makes viewing laborious.
The actors raise the pic a few pegs. The underused Warren brings her every moment alive, leading a magnificent roster of women, including Saldana, De Sousa, Chong and Union, whose role, admittedly, has little scope. Harper, as usual, is an actor of highly attuned sensitivity, while Clennon is interesting in a straight-ahead perf. Comparatively, Williams comes across as uninspired, failing to convey emotional edge.
Staging by Walker-Pearlman favors serpentine widescreen camera moves around actors who are usually paired in dialogue, forging a tone both serious and somewhat repetitious. John Njaga Demps’ autumnal-hued lensing lovingly frames the thesps, though Michael Bearden’s score is a slab of romantic excess.