Turning the Long Island suburbs into a surrealist carousel, helmer-writer Eric Mendelsohn returns with his first feature in a decade and the proposition that art film still has a place in the world — which is an exhilarating idea, especially as represented by “3 Backyards,” an exquisite example of calculated execution in pursuit of elusive ideas. Even with Edie Falco — who starred in Mendelsohn’s “Judy Berlin” pre-“Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” — the commercial prospects for the current film are slim, although Mendelsohn no doubt knows that; nothing about “3 Backyards” makes any concession to commerce.
It’s tempting to describe the film as what it’s not — a conventional narrative, easily digestible morality tale or, especially, a coming-of-age story: With the exception of little Christina (Rachel Resheff) — who in one scene vaults from childish innocence to precocious guile — emotional stasis is the name of the game.
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John and his wife (Elias Koteas, Kathryn Erbe) are on the brink of marital meltdown; he’s taking a flight out of town for what seems no particular reason, and when his plane is canceled, he holes up at a Queens airport hotel rather than go home (and speak to the wife he doesn’t want to speak to, for motives that are never spelled out). Peggy (Falco), a stay-at-homemaker with not enough to do, gets apoplectic when the new neighbor — a well-known actress (Embeth Davidtz) — comes by and asks for a ride to the local ferry landing.
Meanwhile, Christina has stolen a bracelet from her mother, and in the process missed the school bus, causing her to cut through the woods and enter what Mendelsohn clearly intends to be her own warped looking glass: Inside, she finds a self-abusing neighbor with a collection of dog collars hanging in his woodshed, and another neighbor’s lost dog tied up nearby. Christina frees the dog, but loses both the bracelet and a few grains of innocence.
Just as the dog collars suggest a canine serial killer, much of “3 Backyards” is about implication, and bringing our own translation to Mendelsohn’s setups: John’s inner torment (Koteas is intense) suggests any number of things, including infidelity or financial trouble. But unlike the beautiful young woman (Danai Gurira) John watches fail to get hired at the diner where he’s eating, he’s an enigma. The young woman clearly has a story: She’s an immigrant, she’s insanely sweet, but we suspect there isn’t much slack left at the end of her rope. John, we’re less sure about, although the girl evokes in him some hunger for meaning — which may be what he’s been missing all along.
Peggy, on the other hand, is all too open a book, and Falco — much as she did in “Judy Berlin” — manages to generate both sympathy and revulsion for her character, who manages to turn her encounter with the Actress into everything she thought it wouldn’t be.
“3 Backyards” is really only partly about its open-ended characters and stories. It’s more about film as media synthesis. The music, production design and camerawork are so deliberate and effective in creating the tone Mendelsohn is after that one doesn’t quite care about any lack of narrative closure or backstory.
The palette is one of cool blues and minty greens, lovely but suggesting institutionalization; the music by Michael Nicholas is a modernist flute-driven fantasia that is directly at odds with the staid suburban surroundings Kasper Tuxen photographs so beautifully. And it’s exactly that tension that evokes the inner life of Mendelsohn’s characters.. Without words. Just film.