“Top of the World,” Cort Tramontin’s impressive directorial debut, belongs to the “reunion” genre of “The Big Chill,””Return of the Secaucus 7” and “Peter’s Friends.” Angst-ridden tale examines the ennui of six characters in search of themselves during a Thanksgiving weekend in the Colorado mountains. Commercial prospects for indie pic, the first to come from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, are very good, as it deals with the midlife crises of the thirtysomething crowd.
Pic doesn’t borrow its title from “White Heat,” in which James Cagney dies while uttering “Top of the world, Ma,” nor from the last, ironic scene of Mike Leigh’s “High Hopes.” Instead, title is used as both a geographic and symbolic metaphor for being on the edge.
Scripters Jamie Horton and Brockman Seawell have woven a complex “relationship” tale with characters representing a cross-section of white, middle-aged professionals. Central figure is Ali (Margaret Gibson), a frustrated artist unhappily married to Bill (Jamie Horton), a psychologist who tends to carry his doctor-patient dynamics into his personal ties.
Megan (Alice Haining), Ali’s sister, arrives with her new lover, Brad (Gregg Almquist). The foursome are entertained by Greg (John Ottavino), a writer who has fled to the family ranch with the excuse of settling his late father’s estate. Ali, Greg’s ex-girlfriend, soon realizes that her design to rekindle her old flame won’t work, since Greg has fallen for Suzy (Kayla Black), his father’s young and beautiful widow.
Like the individuals in “The Big Chill” and “Peter’s Friends,” locked in one place over a weekend, the characters are forced to deal with their raw, often disturbing, feelings. Pic consists of illuminating interactional scenes that are at once painful and liberating, and admirably doesn’t shy away from being ambitious.
First-time director Tramontin shows a sensitive ear for realistic dialogue, though he has problems establishing the appropriate pacing for this wordy piece. Tempo, particularly in the first part, is too slow and deliberate, though the film improves considerably in its second half.
Most of the actors acquit themselves with decent, natural performances. The one notable exception is Gibson, who is photogenic but tends to pose too much and deliver her lines in a mannered, often monotonous, mode.
Production values are proficient, particularly Bernd Heinl’s lensing of the winter mountains and Bruce Odland’s evocative music.
At times, the characters come across as pretentious and too self-absorbed, but they also capture problems that most career-driven, success-oriented individuals face when they reach middle age. Ultimately, pic may be more relevant to women, as it depicts the eternal career-vs.-marriage conflict and the strains involved in trying to be desirable women, accomplished professionals and “fitting” wives and mothers.