Rather than sitting idly by while his wife collected Oscars, actor Chad Lowe has ably made the transition to director with “Beautiful Ohio,” an early-’70s coming-of-age tale about growing up in the shadow of a genius. Co-produced by spouse Hilary Swank, Lowe’s non-fussy debut coaxes sensitive perfs from a handful of first-timers acting alongside pros Rita Wilson and William Hurt. Moving story plays like a cross between “The Ice Storm” (minus the melancholy) and “The Squid and the Whale” (minus the air of casual superiority), but profile is too low and premise too familiar to snag more than modest returns.
Clive Messerman (David Call) is the kind of teen prodigy who can calculate square roots to two decimal places in his head, but his gift is offset by an aloofness that makes it difficult for him to interact normally with others. As kids, William (Brett Davern) idolized his older brother, but now that they are teens, Clive shuts William out, communicating in a secret language with best friend Elliot (Hale Appleman) instead.
While Clive wins his parents’ approval through a series of mathematics competitions, William covets both his brother’s talent and his girlfriend Sandra (Michelle Trachtenberg). Though the maturity of hindsight reveals Sandra is just a lost sheep living in the Messermans’ basement, at the time, William finds something impossibly sophisticated about the way she describes herself as “Clive’s lover” and defends his genius.
The “genius” element aside, “Beautiful Ohio” could be the story of a million brothers, and as such, it evokes comparisons to other movies while telling a story likely to resonate on a personal level with many viewers. Whereas like-minded pics “Imaginary Heroes” and “A Home at the End of the World” feature young men trying to fill the void left behind after freak accidents claim their brothers, “Ohio” explores a living rivalry.
Most directors might spell things out more explicitly, but Lowe and writer Ethan Canin, who adapted his short story “Batorsag and Szerelem” (named after two words in Clive and Elliot’s mysterious language), have faith in the audience. The actors wisely underplay their motivations, while infrequent narration serves to support rather than explain, allowing auds to draw their own conclusions from emotional moments.
Especially interesting is the relationship between both boys and their parents. Simon (Hurt) believes he has a lot to learn from his sons’ generation, encouraging his children to experiment and even smoking pot with Clive. Mother Judith (Wilson) claims to have always known how both her children would turn out, and warns William, “Your brother will need you for the rest of his life.”
Both Davern and Call are gifted young actors, but there’s a slightly effeminate quality to Davern, while Call possesses more of the stoic sex appeal seen in the early roles of Orlando Bloom or Barry Pepper. Judith’s knowing remarks and William’s softness suggest through much of the film that the character might be gay. Final revelation brings new dimension to the dynamic between the brothers, capping this sincere family portrait with touching gravitas.
When it comes to recreating the retro-kitsch look of the ’70s, a few choice details go a long way. Fortunately, Lowe’s gift for understatement extends to the art direction, evoking the period without becoming nearly as suffocating as, say, “Running With Scissors.” Savvy choice of up-and-coming d.p. Stephen Kazmierski (“Transamerica”) and composer Craig Wedren (“Roger Dodger”) helps give the pic its personality.