The indignities of aging and encroaching dementia, recently covered to such harrowingly precise effect by Michael Haneke in “Amour,” come in for gentler scrutiny in “Fred,” a sun-dappled, seriocomic study of two grown siblings preparing their parents for the dying of the light. Frugal writer-director Richard Ledes previously collaborated with Elliott Gould on the 2008 thriller “The Caller,” and their partnership is a mutually flattering one, though “Fred” is a more democratic ensemble piece than its title implies. Irregularly spiked with some droll sitcom-style humor, this thoughtful but exceedingly modest miniature will be best nursed within the festival circuit.
Per press notes, Ledes’ script was inspired by his own mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but the reference points here throughout are universal. The typically warm, quizzical presence of Gould, playing the mildly withered paterfamilias struggling to cope with his wife’s more rapid degeneration, adds to the sense of familiarity. Assisted by the film’s leafy upstate setting and the neurotic New Yorker presence of his son and daughter, it’s easy to imagine Fred as an older, depleted version of Jack Geller, the similarly affable but clueless dad he played on the TV hit “Friends” for several years, which adds an odd extra layer of poignancy to proceedings.
The bulk of the film’s simple, airy structure is given over to a single summer afternoon. Faintly hippie-ish psychotherapist Carol (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and her brother, Bob (Fred Melamed), whose career as a cash-strapped filmmaker underlines the level of autobiography at play here, drive up to their parents’ comfortable country home, with Carol’s young daughter, Lila (Ariana Altman), in tow.
What appears to be a regular family visit is gradually revealed to have a less sunny motive, as the siblings make arrangements to move their severely senile mother, Susan (Judith Roberts), to a city nursing home in the coming week. Susan is in no position to resist, but Fred is rigidly against the idea; as Carol attempts to talk him round, it becomes clear that his ongoing cycle of acceptance and denial portends his own mental deterioration.
The arc is subtle, though the same doesn’t always go for the writing. “Just because you’re a psychotherapist doesn’t mean you can see into the dark recesses of everyone’s heart,” Bob chides Carol at one point — one of several instances where Ledes could stand to trust his own characterization a little more. The film’s cards are perhaps stacked a little too neatly against Fred, whose case for his independence may merit more consideration than his children grant, but that in itself is a useful discussion point.
The thesps are uniformly engaging — including Mfoniso Udofia, carefully conveying split loyalties as the parents’ Ghanaian live-in nurse — though Melamed’s deadpan bloodhound demeanor, recently an invaluable comic asset to the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” does threaten the tonal balance of the piece. Tech credits are sharper than in many an equivalent microbudget production; Brian Rzepka’s production design, suggesting decades lived via cabinets of accumulated chintz, is a particular asset.