For his second pic, Toronto-based helmer Clement Virgo has again crafted a distinctive, poetic snapshot of folks struggling to get by in the inner city, but “The Planet of Junior Brown” is a much less satisfying effort than “Rude,” Virgo’s debut. Though the new pic has an original, beautiful look and some dynamite performances, the muddled story is only occasionally captivating.
Some festival and TV programmers may want to make the trip to this cinematic planet, but the film is not going to rocket into prolonged theatrical orbit.
Junior Brown (Martin Villafana) is one unhappy camper, a piano prodigy who’s having a devil of a time finding ivories to tinkle. His overprotective mother (Lynn Whitfield) has cut all the strings on the family piano, and things are not much cheerier or more musically gratifying at the home of his piano teacher, Miss Peebs (Margot Kidder). This ultra-paranoid character won’t let him touch her keyboard, so he has to use his considerable imagination and practice on her dining-room table. If those obstacles aren’t enough, the local piano store refuses to allow him to try out the merchandise.
In short, Junior is just a couple of Chopin numbers away from losing his grasp on sanity. Keeping him on this side of madness are his best friend, Buddy Clark (Rainbow Sun Francks), a troubled guy who lost his family in a fire when he was very young, and the strange school janitor, Mr. Pool (Clark Johnson), who, with Buddy’s help, has built an elaborate model of the solar system in the school basement.
Virgo builds a richly textured, almost Dickensian mood with his oddball cast of subcultural characters, but there is a disappointing lack of dramatic development in the script, which doesn’t resolve the story of Junior’s many frustrations in any meaningful or convincing fashion.
The best thing here is the uniformly strong cast, especially newcomer Villafana. He is a standout as the overweight, overwhelmed title character, conveying just the right mix of vulnerability and shy charm. Whitfield also gives a multilayered perf as Junior’s wacky mom, and Sarah Polley is gritty as the streetwise runaway teen who’s going out with Buddy.
Virgo, lenser Jonathan Freeman and production designer Alicia Keywan have given the pic an unusual look that’s half dreamy, half grainy, cinema verite realism. Music is heavy on classical piano tracks, notably Chopin’s Prelude No. 4.