The pronoun in the title of J.P. Chan’s modest debut feature, “A Picture of You,” refers to the recently deceased mother of a bickering sibling pair who have come together to empty out her house, where unresolved emotions ricochet though the rooms as they take out their grief, guilt and frustrations on each other. Competently written and skillfully acted, the film seems to be melodrama-bound, when a shocking discovery and the sudden arrival of friends instead send it careening into comedy. A curiously likable, entertainingly laid-back Asian-American take on all-too-familiar dysfunctional family tropes, this Kickstarter-enabled effort boldly mines farce along with sentiment.
None of the negative vibes radiating from newly divorced, 39-year-old Kyle (Andrew Pang) and his sullen younger sister, Jen (Jo Mei), seem directed at their dead mother, a university professor apparently beloved by all who knew her. Dialogue-free flashbacks of Mom — who is seen serenely tooling on her bike through the verdant countryside, or recalled in brief snippets via memory-redolent objects around the house — furnish a purely nostalgia-tinged portrait. The main bone of contention between brother and sister arises from Kyle’s bitter resentment at being left alone to care for Mom during the last six months of her illness, while Jen’s unacknowledged guilt leads to defensive sniping and general surliness.
Chan keeps the film firmly anchored to the country-set house and the rural road leading up to it, traversed by Kyle on his mother’s bicycle in rare moments of liberation and joy, while Jen doggedly jogs along the asphalt, pausing only at an algae-covered pond to remember roads not taken and opportunities not seized. In the house, Kyle and Jen keep to their own spaces, rarely intersecting and working to different rhythms (Kyle rushes to pack and leave, while Jen pores over annotated marginalia in her mother’s books).
But startlingly graphic sexual images implicating Mom with a faceless (but not genitalia-less) man unite the two siblings in shock and confusion (narratively, not unlike George Clooney and company in “The Descendants”). Jen wants to find out more while Kyle fervently opts to forget the whole affair. Hot on the heels of their discovery, Jen’s madly amiable if nerdy b.f., Doug (Lucas Dixon), and hang-loose best friend, Mika (Teyonah Parris), burst onto the scene, ready to help out with packing. The presence of these outsiders, in the face of Kyle and Jen’s lingering stupefaction, already begins to skew the film toward comedy.
The quartet, much the worse (or better) for wear after rounds of beers and pot, then set out to spy on Mom’s secret squeeze, leading “A Picture of You” into the realm of pure slapstick. The tonal transition by no means proceeds seamlessly, but the overall genial nature of the proceedings makes Chan’s narrative looseness pay off. Andrew Reed’s intimate lensing accentuates the odd familiarity of a rural enclave briefly appropriated by city-dwellers.