A little too in love with cutting between past and present for its own good, “Surfacing” revisits the classic American drama of son vs. father with diminishing results. Applying no distinctive touch of his own, helmer R. Craig Zobel instinctively grasps that this is primarily a writer’s and actor’s film, and thus serves as a reliable guide for several sturdy performances. Warren Skeels’ script, about a young man returning home to bury his suicidal father and forced to relive the guilt of a tragedy, establishes various relationships in a most confusing manner, and delays key events so far into the film that they lose their impact. Mainstream, earnest drama will enjoy good fest exposure, with best prospects in cable and homevideo.
Billy (Chris Stafford) busses from northern climes to Jacksonville, Fla., where his army dad, Tom (Jay Thomas), has just shot himself. The very act of returning home triggers a long series of flashback memories. First is shot by lenser Arledge Armenaki in yellow tint, depicting Billy meeting future g.f. Sara (Lisa Dean Ryan) as he falls from a tree, followed by several others (mostly tinted in blue) as Billy and Sara grow up.
Troubling these reveries is Billy’s vexing home life, stirred up by Tom, a harsh, perpetually grouchy sort who can’t show any love for Billy and even less for wife Elise (Lin Shaye), whose smoking results in terminal cancer. Even before Elise dies, Tom has an affair with one of her hospital nurses, Tracey (Sarah Bibb), who ends up having a son, Ronnie (Rhys Jones).
Crucial event in Billy’s life is postponed until a full hour into pic: When he momentarily diverts his eyes from a pool where he’s watching Sara’s younger brothers, the youngest falls in and drowns. By far the most effectively staged and cut moments in the film, scenes capture the dizzying suddenness of an accident and the subsequent irony of ailing Elise comforting grieving Billy in her hospital room, while Sara blames Billy and cuts him out of her life.
Another problem is that the present-day events interrupt the far more engrossing past incidents. The Modern stories are about Billy tracking down Sara, and about Billy’s pal Jared (Skeels) and his g.f. Shelby (Jill Ritchie). The two couples probably are supposed to offer contrasts, but in the end they only impede pic’s dramatic momentum. As it is, with the numerous flashbacks, several basic relationships — particularly Billy’s with Tracey and Ronnie — are pointlessly murky.
The cast helps keep matters in focus, with Stafford hitting just the right key of repressed emotional cool as a confused young man and Thomas going starkly against type as a father who rubs against just about everyone like course sandpaper. With a barely sketched-in character, Ryan imbues Sara with natural warmth, while Shaye remains one of the most reliable and pliant of supporting thesps.
Production credits appear to be quite good, although the telecine print seen in fest screening marred the shot-on-film image.