“Hello I Must Be Going” opens with newly divorced Amy back in her parents’ house and ends with her departure, suggesting that being temporarily remanded to the nest would be a humiliating ordeal for any relatively independent thirtysomething — and it might, had writer Sarah Koskoff and director Todd Louiso given some indication of the passionate life Amy might otherwise be leading on her own. Instead, they deliver a slight, solipsistic portrait of emotional recovery starring likable and woefully underused character actress Melanie Lynskey (half-missing her big moment), helped along by some frisky sex with a teenage family friend.
That young man, played by newcomer Christopher Abbott, nearly steals the film from Lynskey, whose take on Amy feels anemically unspecific, leaving her open-ended enough that auds, especially distaff ones, can project their own frustrations upon the character. As 19-year-old Jeremy, however, Abbott breathes a little bit of Brando into a tawdry romance-novel fantasy, bringing a restless energy to a role whose primary function is to teach a grown woman how to be loved.
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After watching their daughter wallow indoors for three months, concerned parents Ruth (Blythe Danner, expert at exasperation) and Stan (John Rubinstein, kindly yet closed-off) drag Amy along to a dinner party, where she feels surrounded by phonies: Her lawyer brother (Daniel Eric Gold) is busy brown-nosing, her dad is looking to score the business deal that will enable his retirement, her mom makes small talk about Amy’s faults. Across the table, Amy’s eyes meet Jeremy’s and they connect, evidently convinced they’re the only two genuine people in the room. And so begins the process by which feeling wanted helps Amy shake the negative imprint of her ex (Dan Futterman) and reclaim her own identity.
But what does this naive teenage suitor see in her? For that matter, how does Amy see herself? As the film unfolds, details about her past suggest an artistic career abandoned by the demands of a lopsided marriage. But Lynskey — not quite up to the challenge of carrying a picture — keeps things vague, shifting the focus from what defines Amy to the larger absurdity of having to return home, where she’s treated like a child and forced to sneak out with Jeremy behind her parents’ backs.
Even so, “Hello” should be funnier — not hee-haw, knee-slapping silly, but at least better attuned to the sort of observational details that make audiences smile or wince in recognition (Julie White has the right idea as Jeremy’s oblivious therapist-mom, so eager to be accepting that she mis-assumes her son is gay). One senses a sort of split personality from the movie, as if perhaps Koskoff wanted to embrace the comedy of the situation, while Louiso — whose first feature, “Love Liza,” showcased a near-catatonic Philip Seymour Hoffman huffing gasoline for 90 minutes — preferred to revel in a more understated melancholy.
This tug-of-war presumably played itself out under the aegis of the Sundance Institute’s workshop process, where the script was melded into a shape deemed suitable to open the film festival. True to form, it eschews a more studio-friendly plot in favor of a ragged character’s rocky path to self-discovery and climaxes with a hilariously unexpected feel-good catharsis, the one scene in the film that registers as genuinely original. But it feels as though the material was never allowed to assert its own individuality, instead left to rehash themes better expressed by “The Good Girl” and other seriocomic indies.
Even the look seems to be at odds with the material, as Julie Kirkwood’s warm-glow cinematography stands in open defiance of Amy’s gloomy outlook. As a director, Louiso operates within a narrow emotional range; while not as bleak as “Love Liza,” the film feels similarly monotonous and desperately needs more dramatic fluctuation. Even Laura Veirs’ music, beautiful in its own right, reinforces a tone too mellow for its own good.