Jeff Lipsky, who has distributed some of the most interesting foreign films and American indies of the last two decades, makes a bold but rough transition to filmmaking as writer-director of “Childhood’s End,” a mildly engaging but ultimately frustrating serio-comedy about adolescent friends. More impressive in intent than in execution, pic may have to travel the festival road for maximum exposure.
It’s easy to detect the cinematic influences on Lipsky’s debut, which aspires to be an American indie with a European sensibility but comes across as a laborious effort in search of its own identity. The concern with the pains and joys of adolescence was probably inspired by Truffaut and Malle; the occupation of the central character, a photographer-editor, may come from Antonioni’s “Blowup”; the romance between a youngster and an older woman could have been influenced by any number of French films. But more than anything else, “Childhood’s End” attempts to re-create the unique charm and flavor of Eric Rohmer’s morality fables.
Set in an upscale Minneapolis suburb in l993, tale revolves around three high school graduates and their families. Greg (Sam Trammell) is a bright, handsome youngster who has just landed his first job, at a glitzy magazine. Rebecca (Heather Gottlieb) is almost his opposite: painfully shy, full of anxieties and in a perpetual state of profound comfort. Rounding out the central trio is Denise (Colleen Werthmann), a plain-looking, tough-talking girl who’s on the verge of accepting her lesbianism.
A product of a liberal family, Greg has healthy relationships with his parents and slightly older sister, Chloe (Bridget White). In an early scene, Greg takes pictures of Chloe in the nude, with no inhibitions on his or her part. About to move to his first apartment, Greg decides to act upon a longtime fantasy and pursue an affair with Denise’s mom, Evelyn (Cameron Foord), a sassy librarian who’s his mother’s best friend. To his surprise, Evelyn responds favorably, and soon they’re engaged in an open affair that upsets just about everyone: Denise, Greg’s mom and particularly Rebecca, who, like all other girls , is infatuated with Greg.
Chief strength of “Childhood’s End” is its nonjudgmental attitude toward its characters, each in desperate search for a place in the world. But the movie suffers from two weaknesses that prevent it from being an enjoyable meditation in the manner of Malle’s bittersweet comedies or Rohmer’s comic morality tales.
Writer-director Lipsky has constructed interesting characters, but they are contained in a slight narrative that doesn’t establish sufficiently meaningful connections among them. Result is an episodic movie that reveals a director’s lack of control over his material. Hence, Greg, who’s clearly the film’s center, almost disappears in the second half, and Chloe, who’s prominent in the beginning, does not reappear until the very end, in an unsatisfying epilogue set in the future.
Far more severe is Lipsky’s stilted dialogue and the feeling that a mature man’s perspective has been imposed on his younger persona. Most conversations are overwritten in a constrained lingo that doesn’t always ring true. It’s in this respect that “Childhood’s End” deviates most significantly from its cherished French models, for Rohmer’s mastery is in writing intimate verbal exchanges that are both painfully honest and poignantly satirical.
Ultimately, the film’s sexual politics (an affair between a naive youngster and a mature woman who could be his mother, a candid portrait of a lesbian bond, male and female frontal nudity) come across as liberal without being touching or entertaining. For instance, it’s never clear what Evelyn, who terminates another affair to be with Greg, sees in him, for their meetings are neither intellectually or sexually absorbing.
Unevenly staged, “Childhood’s End” benefits from solid acting by most cast members, who admirably overcome the stiff dialogue. Trammell, Gottlieb, Werthmann and Foord are especially impressive.
Visually, the film is handsome but a bit static, borrowing some of its stylistic devices from Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley: Lipsky keeps the camera close to the faces he records, the images have no depth, and characters often pose in front of monochromatic backgrounds.