A quietly contemplative, deliberately paced tale of renewal and redemption, “A Year in Mooring” sails smoothly, if not downright defiantly, far beyond the commercial mainstream. Pic may strike some as reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s more meditative works, while others will liken it to ’70s character-driven dramas by the likes of Bob Rafelson and Jerry Schatzberg — all of which should indicate the unlikelihood that Chris Eyre’s beautifully crafted indie will make a big commercial splash. But fest exposure and careful marketing could lead to successful dockings at arthouse ports of call.
Peter Vanderwall’s elliptical script covers several months in the life of a successful businessman (Josh Lucas) who tries to recover — or escape, or both — from a terrible tragedy while living aboard a decrepit sailboat he’s slowly restoring.
Identified in the credits only as the Young Mariner, the businessman arrives at a small-town harbor in North Michigan looking singularly ill-prepared for nautical life (he shows up wearing a suit and dragging a wheeled suitcase), and reveals more industriousness than skill or experience during extended trial-and-error efforts to repair the boat.
From their vantage point at the harbor cafe, two other unnamed characters monitor his plodding progress: the Waitress (Ayelet Zurer), a taciturn beauty who’s trying, without much success, to quit smoking; and the Ancient Mariner (James Cromwell), a salty old dog who’s haunted by unpleasant memories of his own.
As days drift into weeks, the businessman occasionally interacts with the cafe regulars and the local grocery-store checkout clerk (Casey LaBow). For the most part, though, he keeps to himself, his work and his memories, which may leave him with way too much time on his hands.
Eyre (who first attracted attention with 1998 Sundance prizewinner “Smoke Signals”) doesn’t exactly make it easy for his audience here, and some may be inclined to bail during several long, dialogue-free sequences in which Lucas’ character does nothing more dramatic than tinker with pumps and motors. But those who can get into the rhythms of the pic will appreciate the potency of its overarching metaphor and the subtle expressiveness of Lucas’ performance. “Mooring” teases the audience with only vague hints of what drove the businessman into self-exile, offering flashbacks that stop short of fully explaining precisely what happened. But Lucas’ haunted, guilt-racked demeanor tells viewers all they really need to know, and provides more than enough motivation to wish his character well during his arduous rebirth.
The supporting characters are even more sketchily drawn, and are defined almost entirely by the actors who portray them. But Zurer’s mature sensuality and intelligence, Cromwell’s avuncular wisdom and LaBow’s poignant vulnerability serve the pic very well indeed. Jon Tenney provides a few welcome moments of comic relief as a recently divorced father who’s perhaps a bit too eager to tell how much he’s enjoying his new freedom.
Even though “A Year of Mooring” reportedly was filmed over a span of less than three weeks, Eyre manages — with invaluable aid from ace lenser Elliot David (“Twilight,” “Out of Sight”) — to convincingly indicate the passing of months and the changing of seasons. The healing process can be a slow one, this understated drama suggests, and progress can’t be rushed. Much the same can be said about “Mooring” itself, the kind of drama that more or less requires you to relax, focus and willingly drift where you are led.