Michael Winterbottom offers a fitfully engaging attempt by the ever-experimental director to challenge the way cinema deals with stories of duration by shooting in sequence over a span of five years.

Four children repeatedly brush their teeth, eat their cereal and visit their incarcerated dad in Michael Winterbottom’s “Everyday,” a fitfully engaging attempt by the ever-experimental director to challenge the way cinema deals with stories of duration by shooting in sequence over a span of five years. Commissioned by Film4 as a look at the British prison system, Winterbottom’s verite-style treatment yields something resembling the deleted-scenes reel from a more sensational treatment of the same subject, emphasizing routine over landmark events. Bound for TV in its native U.K., pic could leverage curiosity for a small domestic VOD deal.

Like American counterpart Steven Soderbergh, Winterbottom is one of those directors seemingly bored by the limitations of conventional narrative, twisting and bending the rules in new ways every time at bat. For obvious reasons, such outside-the-box projects appeal to film fans eager to see how certain stories hold up to playful manipulation, though the results have a tendency to confound unsuspecting auds.

Considered within the context of other prison films, “Everyday” lacks the cautionary cliches we’ve come to expect from the genre: There’s no dropping of soap, no evil warden or attempted escapes. Instead, Winterbottom’s vision (co-written with Laurence Coriat) conveys the tedium of confinement and the sheer volume of experience missed when a man finds himself separated from his family for five years. A more effective way to convey the same point might have been to tell the story strictly from Ian’s perspective (John Simm plays the jailed patriarch), though such subjectivity doesn’t gel with the pic’s free-ranging fly-on-the-wall approach.

Instead, big-hearted Scottish actress Shirley Henderson gets the greater share of screentime as Karen, overwhelmed trying to care for the couple’s four children while also working for tips at the local pub, where an opportunistic stranger (Darren Tighe) appeals to her loneliness. However difficult life was before Ian was arrested, it’s downright daunting now as Karen tries to manage everything on her own, while still leaving time to commute by bus, train or taxi to the prison for visiting hours.

Clearly, it’s all too much for one woman to handle: Karen’s disapproving mother (Valerie Lilley) makes a begrudging babysitter, too distracted to notice when the boys start to play with dad’s rifle, and the kids desperately need a father’s influence at home, as suggested by the regular skirmishes they get into at school. “Everyday” communicates each of these points obliquely, expecting thinking auds to extrapolate how Ian’s absence creates such challenges.

A bit more explanation would have gone a long way, however, and it’s easy to get confused about what we’re seeing. For instance, when Karen finally collects Ian from prison, one can’t possibly know that he’s only been released on a day pass until he returns a few hours later, having gotten little time to enjoy much more than a hasty shag with Karen and a group hug with the kids.

“Everyday” deliberately omits any direct mention of Ian’s crime (though at one point, his sentence is extended when guards find him in possession of a small amount of drugs). Still, the implied message is more effective than the moral comeuppances once meted out by Hollywood’s Hays Code: Whatever the crime, it’s not worth it.

As the years go by and the kids grow — perhaps the only real benefit of Winterbottom’s approach — time begins to run together, making it all too easy for the mind to wander. Occasional musical interludes lend the proceedings a much-needed meditative vibe, though as sublime as Michael Nyman’s sparse score proves, there’s no denying that everything the film has to say might have been conveyed just as effectively by a single, well-chosen country song.

Everyday

U.K.

Production

A Revolution Films production in association with Film4. (International sales: Bankside Films, London.) Produced by Melissa Parmenter. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay, Laurence Coriat, Winterbottom.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), James Clarke, Sean Bobbitt, Marcel Zyskind, Simon Tindall, Anne Marie Lean Vercoe; editors, Mags Arnold, Paul Monaghan; music, Michael Nyman; sound (Dolby Digital), Will Whale, Adrian Bell, Paul Cameron; re-recording mixer, Richard Davey; associate producer, Josh Hyams; casting, Wendy Brazington. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 2, 2012. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Masters.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With

John Simm, Shirley Henderson, Shaun Kirk, Robert Kirk, Katrina Kirk, Stephanie Kirk, Darren Tighe, Valerie Lilley.

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