Walter works at the movie theater in a small town, where he believes he’s the son of God, tasked by the Man upstairs with deciding whether those around him are going to heaven or hell. Whether audiences are also willing to believe this original if somewhat half-baked premise is another question entirely. While “Walter” harks back to so many stylized ’90s-era indies — and conceivably might have played a festival like Sundance had it been made two decades earlier — these days, such an overly cutesy, credibility-straining dramedy is fated to disappear into VOD purgatory, following its modest theatrical release in March.
Crafted with equal doses of poignancy and pap, Paul Shoulberg’s screenplay (expanded from his 2010 short, directed by someone else entirely) caught the eye of first-time helmer Anna Mastro, who embraces the sincerity at the script’s core, but doesn’t quite know how to handle its more offbeat sense of magical realism. How, exactly, does anyone take its weird conceit seriously?
Affectlessly played by the otherwise affable Andrew J. West (Gareth on “Walking Dead”), the story’s protagonist is a clean-cut, blank-faced, slightly obsessive-compulsive boy named (what else?) Walter. Except in the real world, hardly anyone calls their kids that anymore. (To quote Esquire magazine, “the word looks like the chicken skin of an old man’s calf.”)
Every morning, this contrived young man awakens to a symphony of alarm clocks to find his clothes neatly ironed and folded by his equally artificial mother (Virginia Madsen), whose only other character trait is an inexplicable need to cook eggs, buying dozens at a time, then scrambling them up for every meal. Against this kooky backdrop, Walter informs us about his peculiar mandate: With one glance, he judges any and all who cross his path, which the film intends to be humorous, but instead feels merely capricious. (Why does this twerp get to decide the eternal fate of those he barely knows? And why doesn’t he actually engage with anyone, instead of walking around in his bizarre autistic bubble?)
“Walter” plays it fast and loose with the religious implications of its wobbly premise. For the record, Walter explains, he’s not Jesus: “That was someone else, with a beard.” But if Jesus was a carpenter, why shouldn’t his successor be tearing movie tickets at the local megaplex?
When not passing final judgment on total strangers, this inexplicably empowered nobody maintains awkward friendships with an over-sexed jerk (a funny if profane character bit by “Heroes’” Milo Ventimiglia), the pretty concession-stand clerk (Leven Rambin) and his checked-out slob of a boss (Jim Gaffigan). Not that any of these connections promises much potential, least of all the wispy hint of romantic intrigue with the film’s eunuch-like hero.
Instead, aided by an irreverent local shrink (William H. Macy), Walter spends most of the movie dealing with unfinished business, helping a stranded soul (Justin Kirk) only he can see figure out if he’s damned or not, while getting the bottom of a mystery involving a local nurse (Neve Campbell) with an ambiguous connection to Walter’s dead dad (Peter Facinelli).
Macy brings just the right amount of quirk to his highly unprofessional-sounding therapy sessions, providing a glimpse of what director Mastro might be able to do in future projects when paired with good-sport collaborators. The film’s few additional flourishes — such as Rambin basking on a bed of freshly popped corn, a la “American Beauty’s” rose-petal scene — feel far from fresh. The same goes for the canned flashbacks depicting Walter as a carefree kid, though these scenes do hold the key to the movie’s surprisingly cathartic payoff.