While set primarily after the peace-and-love movement has waned, an unabashed hippie-holdover sensibility flows through “A Home at the End of the World” lending a mellow sweetness to the emotionally rich drama. Radically condensed by Michael Cunningham from his novel yet faithful to the intimate epic’s essence, this chronicle of an enduring friendship is driven by soulful performances and by a genuine sense of wonder for the unpredictable permutations of love and family. Strong word of mouth could help elevate this touching film beyond its core audience of gay men and admirers of the book.
A highly capable transition to features for seasoned Broadway director Michael Mayer, the film goes out domestically July 23 as the sophomore release from Warner Independent Pictures. Version screening in Provincetown — where it won the HBO Audience Award — and other early-summer fests differs slightly from the final release cut, which has an additional four minutes, including the reintegration of a kiss between the two lead characters, played by Colin Farrell and talented newcomer Dallas Roberts. Long-lead press who caught an earlier edit got to see full-frontal Farrell, now cropped after being deemed too distracting.
Reducing his story to key episodes without drastically shrinking the focus of the sprawling four-character study, Cunningham’s script covers three time periods: a 1967 prelude, 1974 and 1982, when the main action occurs. Recalling in moments Sidney Lumet’s lovely, underseen drama “Running on Empty,” the film captures the emotional legacy of the ’60s but also evokes the moods of the 1970s and early ’80s in America. The transitions between periods work well (despite some criminally bad wigs) thanks to the casting and direction of actors who look and behave remarkably like younger editions of Farrell and Roberts.
Opening has 9-year-old Bobby Morrow (Andrew Chalmers) in thrall to his hip older brother Carlton (Ryan Donowho), who drops acid with the kid and teaches him about love before dying in a shocking freak accident.
At a Cleveland high school seven years later, Bobby (played in his teens by Erik Smith) meets and instantly befriends introspective Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan). Having also lost his mother in the interim, Bobby puts down roots with Jonathan’s family, moving in permanently after his father’s death.
Perhaps informed by Mayer’s recent experience with stage musicals — directing “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” — many of the key emotional scenes are set to songs or dancing. The best of these is when Jonathan’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), is drawn to the boys’ room by the sound of a Laura Nyro record and is persuaded by Bobby to share a joint with them. The flaky, floaty dancing that follows their initial awkwardness sets the tone for the film’s heartfelt advocacy of reinvented families.
While he’s clearly in love with Bobby and they regularly fool around together as teens, Jonathan leaves Cleveland as soon as he’s able for independence in New York. Bobby (now played by Farrell) stays behind, tied to the Glovers. When the couple moves to Arizona, Bobby follows Jonathan (Roberts) to New York, moving into the East Village apartment he shares with Clare (Robin Wright Penn), a free-spirited older woman who’s been through drugs and a bad marriage. (Mercifully, she persuades Bobby to lose his mop-top ‘do, rescuing Farrell from an unfortunate wig.)
Jonathan’s plan to father Clare’s baby is derailed when she and Bobby fall in love. Despite continuing his unfulfilling stream of casual gay sex, Jonathan tires of being the third wheel and abruptly leaves. The separation lasts until the funeral of his father (Matt Frewer) in Arizona, when Bobby arrives with Clare, who reveals she’s pregnant. (Final release cut also includes an additional scene here of Spacek’s character with Bobby.)
Seemingly unable to function other than as a unit of three, Jonathan, Bobby and Clare move to a house in Woodstock to raise the baby together, challenging not only convention but also their own ideas of love and commitment.
While the key fifth character from the novel, Jonathan’s lover Erich, has been dropped, the film addresses the onset of AIDS and its direct impact on the characters with moving economy, closing the drama on a note of poignant melancholy.
Perhaps through being so pared down here, the elegant symmetry of Cunningham’s luminous prose is even more evident: Bobby is infinitely hipper than outsider Jonathan in high school. But their roles are neatly reversed, with Jonathan flowering into the more edgy, cynical character while adult Bobby seems innocent and almost pure, oblivious to how much he’s desired. Likewise, Alice and Clare function as complementary opposites. The former is a prim suburban housewife who reconnects with the open-minded woman beneath her surface, while the latter’s cultivated eccentricity to some degree masks her hunger for a normal relationship.
All the characters’ needs are explored with a delicate hand by actors who communicate far more than their dialogue. In an uncharacteristic role, Farrell has the softness and vulnerability of someone who’s spent much of his life trying to counter devastating personal loss, making Bobby inarticulate but loyal, loving and unable to be alone. Roberts brings volatility and intelligence to Jonathan as well as a deep sense of solitude and longing. Smith and Allan also hit their marks playing the same characters as teenagers.
While rainbow-haired Clare’s bohemian kook act is a little theatrical at first, Wright Penn deftly peels away the layers to show the woman underneath, and the always superb Spacek paints a detailed inner life for Alice with only a handful of scenes.
Shepherded by actor-turned-producer Tom Hulce, who originally optioned the novel, the handsomely shot, fluidly edited indie feature looks a little underpopulated, and its New York scenes at times have that narrow view typical of Canadian stand-in locations.
But serious money has been spent on the knockout soundtrack, smoothly integrating Duncan Sheik’s beautiful acoustic and piano score (and two original songs) with smartly deployed period-appropriate songs by Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Leonard Cohen, Dusty Springfield and others.