There’s plenty of intrigue on the New Mexico ranch our heroine is shunted off to in “Kepler’s Dream,” but little suspense is wrung from it in this tepid family drama adapted from a well-reviewed YA novel by Juliet Bell. Opening in a dozen markets nationwide simultaneous with a VOD launch, the film is more likely to access viewers in home formats. But even fans of the book are likely to find this translation flat.
When her divorced mother (Kelly Lynch) requires a lengthy hospital stay to undergo a procedure that represents her last hope of beating advanced leukemia, 11-year-old Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas) must live elsewhere. Her father (Sean Patrick Flanery), who runs a fishing-expedition business, claims he’s too busy to take on the responsibility, but then he’s always been a deadbeat dad. With no other options, Ella is dumped in the lap of a grandmother she’s never met, one her father barely communicates with and her mother laments “doesn’t like people, never mind children.”
Upon arriving at this wealthy relative’s plush New Mexico ranch, Ella discovers Violet von Stern (Holland Taylor) isn’t entirely unwelcoming, but otherwise lives up to her reputation. She’s the kind of humorless elitist who micromanages one’s language (“yeah” is an unacceptable replacement for “yes”) and actually harrumphs at her preadolescent granddaughter for not knowing who Evelyn Waugh is.
They have a common love of books, but Violet’s is more the covetous kind: She has a large collection of valuable first editions that are, of course, not to be touched. This pursuit has drawn another houseguest in “eminent bookseller” Abercrombie (David Hunt), a supercilious sort who’s a little too obviously up to no good. There’s some compensation for Ella in the kindlier attentions of ranch foreman Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada) and his teenage daughter Rosie (Esperanza Fermin).
When granny’s most prized volume — an ultra-rare 17th century tome by German astronomer Johannes Kepler that’s considered to be the first science-fiction novel — goes missing, suspicion improbably falls on true-blue Miguel, while Abercrombie stands around looking shifty. To clear the Miguiel’s name, Ella and Rosie turn Nancy Drew.
Though adequately produced, “Kepler’s Dream” lacks any real atmosphere or mystery, robbing Northern California girl Ella’s introduction to the desert (why does cultured snob Violet live here, anyway?) of any excitement, just as the plot mechanics feel predictable from the get-go. Perhaps more crucially, the interpersonal dynamics fail to spark, sapping emotion from a story that’s ultimately all about reconciliation. There’s not much payoff as the team-written script rotely arrives at a conclusion in which every conflict is patly resolved.
While the adult thesps do pro work, their characters feel one-dimensional. And it’s a considerable obstacle that juvenile leads Blake-Thomas and Fermin seem rather wooden and ill-at-ease as our figures of primary identification.
Amy Glazer, a veteran theater director whose two prior features (“Drifting Elegant,” “Seducing Charlie Barker”) were much better if little-seen adaptations of edgier stage texts, handles matters with workmanlike competence. But she never seems terribly invested in the material — a position most viewers are likely to find themselves in as well.