A Welsh family in desperate need of an escape route chooses fantasy in “House of America.” Adapted from Edward Thomas’ stage play, uneasy mix of reckless-youth appeal and relentlessly depressing circumstances reps a respectable yet finally off-putting overreach for debuting helmer Marc Evans. Despite charismatic leads and a terrific rock soundtrack, major downer’s commercial prospects are iffy.
At first, Evans gets some wry fun from central figures’ flamboyant contrast against their bleak backdrop of Banwen, a small town in South Wales. Holed up in their isolated old house, the Lewis clan faces life with originality, if little real-world resourcefulness. The “kids” are all twentysomethings, though leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding Sid (Steven Macintosh) and perky sis Gwenny (Lisa Palfrey) fixate on their role-playing “games” as Jack Kerouac and other classic U.S. rebel figures to a disturbingly immature degree. Younger, more level-headed bro Boyo (Matthew Rhys) sometimes joins in, but his heart isn’t in it.
The Lewis offspring have never had much of a chance, since their dad abruptly took off for the U.S. some 15 years before (a “fact” that grows ever more doubtful as story advances), and since Mam (Sian Phillips), already hospital-committed at least once before, is clearly mentally ill.
Coping with this burden, the youths drink a lot, play Beat Generation dress-up, and flaunt the law in minor ways. Main engine for hope in their lives is an American Dream of sorts — that they’ll find some way to go “on the road” a la fabled Jack K., and reunite with Dad. But latter hasn’t been heard from since he abandoned ship, if indeed that’s what happened.
Through first half, at least, one keeps expecting some ray of non-delusional sunshine to poke through all the gloom, since sibling characters are so attractive and likable. Their hipster games are engaging enough, their rapport warm. It’s credible that the threesome might have settled all this time for being one another’s best (maybe only) friends. Yet sequence of events determinedly squashes the slightest optimism: Mam loses remaining shreds of sanity, while Sid and Gwenny retreat further into an increasingly incestuous escapism, leaving Boyo at his own rope’s end. A long-secreted murder is revealed , provoking one final burst of suicide and madness.
This is operatic-tragedy stuff, but script (which feature some overweening poetical speeches) and direction haven’t left mucky realism far enough behind to render such baroque melodrama moving, or credible. In the end, “House of America” seems to be about hereditary mental illness — something that really should have been telegraphed all along. Fleeting, B&W “Dodge City” segs (actually shot in Alberta, Canada) offer glimpses of a lone older man who may be Dad, or just protags’ daydreams about him. Halfhearted reconciliatory coda in that sphere is shrug-inducing.
With her platinum dye job and unraveling maternal grip, Phillips recalls Gloria Grahame in the U.S. cult fave “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” though her best efforts can’t do as much for a less cannily conceived role. Mackintosh, Rhys and Palfrey (who looks quite like a young Tracey Ullman) prove themselves worth watching in the future. Support roles are acceptably filled but marginal.
Pierre Aim’s delicate lensing palette locates splashes of vivid color (provided by deft production and costume designs) amid a gray landscape. Native son John Cale contributes plaintive musical backdrops, but main attraction is a smart, diverse selection of rock tunes — including several originally penned by his old U.S. band the Velvet Underground, and others sung by likewise Welsh-born Tom Jones.