A pair of beautifully mismatched lead performances elevate a predictable drama to unexpected resonance in “The Favor.” Patiently observing the slow-to-thaw relationship between a middle-aged New Jerseyite and the troubled teenage boy he welcomes into his life, writer-director Eva Aridjis invests her first fiction feature with rewarding depths of humor and feeling that go a long way toward redeeming the occasional tonal awkwardness or overstated emotion. Gently wrought tearjerker should travel well on the festival circuit, though its modest aspirations and execution will probably draw more cable than distrib attention.
Tender prologue introduces high school sweethearts Lawrence (Luke Robertson) and Caroline (Laura Breckenridge), who are deeply in love but on the verge of being separated. Opening credits gracefully bridge the quarter-century gap between past and present, as Lawrence (now played by stage thesp Frank Wood), a photographer still living in his hometown of Bayonne, N.J., receives a surprise phone call from the woman who broke his heart.
Long divorced from her husband, whom she left Lawrence for 25 years before, Caroline (Paige Turco) has recently returned home with her brooding teenage son, Johnny (Ryan Donowho). She and Lawrence quickly rekindle their relationship over a first date, but Caroline dies in an accident shortly afterward.
One could complain about a certain callousness in this setup, which conveniently ends with Lawrence becoming Johnny’s guardian in order to keep the boy from going into foster care. Yet on a scene-by-scene basis, Aridjis (who helmed the prize-winning feature docu “Children of the Street”) favors a low-key, even-handed approach that neutralizes easy melodrama.
That’s a good thing, as Johnny turns out to be a study in adolescent angst. At the core of the teen’s problems is his longing to see his real father — a desire that only aggravates his hostility toward Lawrence, despite Lawrence’s patient and considerate attempts to befriend his foster son and steer him in the right direction.
As the aging, balding, decidedly un-hip Lawrence, Wood radiates affection and consummate decency while quietly conveying the deep loneliness that would inspire him to take on such a burden. Donowho, a convincing teenager at age 25, overcomes the potential punk-goth cliches of his role to reveal a complex portrait of youthful boredom and bitterness.
Crucially, both thesps succeed in establishing the kind of effortless rapport that eludes their characters. Their final dialogue exchanges are written and directed by Aridjis with particular sensitivity, as well as an almost painful earnestness that somehow manages to steer clear of sentimentality.
Slightly morose tone at the outset cracks every so often thanks to a few conspicuous comic detours, most of them aimed at Johnny’s excessively generous pot supplier (a very funny Jesse Kelly) and at Lawrence’s side career as a pet photographer, which explains the unusually high number of dogs in the picture.
Shot on 35mm, pic has a wintry, vaguely retro look and feel enhanced by a host of well-chosen tunes from bands including the Troggs, the Garrets and the Cure. Other tech credits are pro.