If Nathaniel Hawthorne’s seven-gabled house occupies the dark side of the spectrum of New England homes, then the rambling three-story Victorian in Laura Colella’s “Breakfast With Curtis” reps its lighter counterpart. As unkempt, free-floating and bucolic as that Providence, R.I., abode, Colella’s tale of a lad’s seminal summer will win hearts and minds at Anglo and Euro fests, and just maybe a brave distrib in the bargain.
Colella’s project falls into the interesting world-cinema trend of movies that straddle fiction and nonfiction (as the poster ironically declares, it’s “loosely based on fiction”). Painter and publisher Theo Green, owner of the same house (which is also Colella’s actual residence), fashioned a series of YouTube vids with teen Jonah Parker two years ago; these clips form the grist for the episodic, semi-comedic narrative.
Many of the characters play themselves, only renamed. Green is now wild-haired, aging hippie Syd, and Jonah Parker is now Curtis, who lives next door with dad Simon (David Parker) and mom Sylvie (Virginia Laffey). As a 9-year-old boy, Curtis (played by Gideon Parker) mistreats Syd’s cat and gets such a violently worded reprimand from his neighbor that Simon responds in kind with threats to both Syd and his wife, Pirate (Adele Parker).
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A chilling effect between the two homes settles in until Curtis’ 14th year. Now played by Jonah Parker, Curtis is an alienated man-boy, geeky, smart and so emotionally cut off that he can barely get a word past his lips. Though that episode with Syd seems to have scarred him for life, the movie sets out to prove otherwise.
Syd’s so-called “Purple Citadel” suggests something stuck in a time warp between the present and the early ’70s, when composting was de rigueur and Carole King’s “Tapestry” was perpetually in the air; the place looks like a multi-colored cake on the outside but is full of funky individuals on the inside. Colella’s thorough and lovingly detailed coverage of the three-story house is easily the film’s strong suit, but so is its free and easy attitude of letting anything and everything happen, as when Curtis begins to use his Web and videocamera skills to shoot videos of Syd, opining about all topics under the sun. The place’s fecund, fun-loving atmosphere, in contrast with Curtis’ fairly conservative home life, becomes the key to unlocking the boy’s creative gifts.
Colella fortunately doesn’t use this video project excessively as a filmmaker’s device; it’s simply one of various activities going under the roof, including Syd’s gardening work, his attempts to get his publishing biz going again, elderly second-floor neighbor Sadie (Yvonne Parker) keeping active, and third-floor neighbor Frenchy (Aaron Jungels) alternating between doing yoga and building everything from trellises to hammocks. In between, folks play mean games of table tennis and enjoy lovely outdoor lunches and backyard movie screenings.
Stuff (rather than plot) happens in “Breakfast With Curtis.” Even when a visitor (Tory Fair) turns up for what seems to be a weekend of purely erotic (and offscreen) pleasure with as many bodies as wish to join her, she’s just part of the house’s ever-expansive life force.
As the only cast member truly required to act, Jonah Parker reveals Curtis inching out of his emotional shell with impressive patience and the kind of commitment that recalls certain adolescent performances in Wes Anderson’s movies. Everyone else, even when they’re not playing variations of themselves, exudes unscripted naturalism. Colella and a tiny crew handle the pic’s tech side with confidence, including a bright and cheery HD lensing palette.