“Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” is an easygoing seriocomic flashback starring Javier Camara as a Beatles-obsessed schoolteacher who pursues a chance to actually meet John Lennon in 1966 Spain. Purportedly inspired by a true story, David Trueba’s latest feature nonetheless throws most of its narrative weight behind a conventional if appealing fiction about its protagonist’s rural road trip with a gaggle of misfits, including two runaway youths. Selected to represent Spain in the foreign-language Oscar race after sweeping most of the major Goya Awards earlier this year, this low-key crowdpleaser will require some nurturing to make sure it catches the attention of those nostalgic older auds it’s targeting. After a weeklong December qualifying run in Los Angeles, Outsider plans a limited U.S. theatrical release for early 2015.
After a brief, too archly narrated faux newsreel showing the Beatles at the height of their fame (with rumors of discontent under its relentless spotlight), we meet middle-aged bachelor Antonio San Roman (Camara), who teaches English and Latin at a Catholic boys’ school. He’s introduced deploying his favorite classroom technique: having students recite and ponder Beatles lyrics (at the moment, “Help!”), whose supposed buried meanings he takes very seriously.
Fate has brought his hero, Lennon, to Spain, where he’s taking a break from Beatledom by acting in Richard Lester’s surreal WWII black comedy “How I Won the War,” with southern Almeria locations standing in for North Africa. Assuming rather naively that his comparative seriousness of purpose and bearing will gain him access denied millions of teenyboppers, Antonio hopes to persuade Lennon to print song lyrics on his albums, so his students, and everyone else, can’t mangle or misinterpret them so easily in translation.
Antonio has barely departed in his beat-up car before he acquires two hitchhiking passengers, both from Madrid. Sixteen-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer) has fled from home after his heavy-handed policeman father (Jorge Sanz) decrees the boy’s Beatlesque mop-top hairdo must go, today. Slightly older Belen (Natalia de Molina) is a pretty, serenely composed young woman who claims she’s off to visit her mother. But Antonio correctly perceives she’s actually a girl in trouble of a very familiar kind, without friends or family to lean on.
Once they arrive in the dusty seaside city of Almeria, Antonio takes it upon himself to arrange Juanjo’s room, board and waitering job with the kindly local cafe owner (Ramon Fontsere), and to find a room for Belen in the same humble accommodations he’s staying in. Both teens end up tagging along as this antic elder tries to orchestrate a meeting with Lennon, despite hurdles that include security guards and a flower-pot-throwing Cynthia Lennon.
The climactic tete-a-tete is, in keeping with the film’s modest, anecdotal overall tenor, left largely to the viewer’s imagination, though there’s a neat closing payoff that makes clever reference to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song that Lennon wrote during his sojourn in this strawberry-growing region. (Pic’s title comes from the song’s lyrics.) The following year, of course, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” would become the soundtrack to a suddenly revolutionary youth culture whose impact would be felt even amid the sociopolitical repression of Franco’s Spain.
There’s not a lot of surface narrative conflict here, apart from some bullying Juanjo suffers at the hands of local louts who view his “girlish” locks as a provocation. The loneliness and desperation behind Antonio’s borderline-annoying garrulousness are suggested more by Camara’s performance than by any scripted insight, and subsidiary figures are etched without much depth. But “Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” is ultimately good-hearted and gracefully handled enough to transcend the leisurely slightness of its material. It’s handsomely shot, with savvy design contributions that never overdo the 1960s nostalgia, whose more fabled style trends these characters would hardly have had access to anyway.
Veteran jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s spare acoustic score is pleasant, although the frankly laid-back pic could have used something a little more energetic. Additional composing is credited to double-bass great Charlie Haden, who passed away this summer.