An arrogant Los Angeles business consultant with a penchant for whisky and one-night stands gets a comeuppance of sorts — and ultimately regains a piece of his soul — when he returns to his Midwest roots to deal with his estranged father’s estate. Although Patrick Thomas Underwood’s “The Middle Distance” has a familiar, formulaic feel and banal, wannabe-snappy dialogue, it’s cleanly shot, it moves at a decent clip and its snow-covered landscapes are mighty attractive. Although unlikely to go the distance outside fests and VOD, it should serve as a useful calling card for its debuting director.
In the middle of the winter, glib workaholic Neil (Ross Partridge) receives a call from his younger brother, James (Kentucker Audley), asking him to come and help sell the family’s summer cottage by the lake in New Buffalo, Mich. There he meets his brother’s petite, perky fiancee, Rebecca (Joslyn Jensen), a self-deprecating photographer whose character comes off as a refugee from “Girls.” She’s young enough to find Neil’s supreme self-confidence and world-weary air enticing; older women, such as townie Beth (Jennifer Lafleur), a friend of Neil’s long-lost former love, Charlotte, know enough to call an a-hole an a-hole.
When jazz musician James goes away for an extended gig, Neil is furious at being left to deal with the home repairs on his own; he may be a dab hand at closing multimillion-dollar deals, but he totally lacks the handyman gene. Fortunately for him, it turns out that Rebecca knows her way around drills, claw hammers, busted pipes and broken fences, as unlikely as it may seem for a woman who studied ballet intensively for 16 years of her life. She offers to help him if he gives her advice on her photographic commission. After butting heads at first, the two eventually forge an unlikely bond, furthered by a mutual love of whisky and cigarettes. (There’s so much smoking in this film it almost feels European.)
On the plus side, Underwood’s script and direction clearly bring out the mixed feelings of rivalry and solidarity shared by siblings Neil and James, and the social-status gap between city boy Neil and the New Buffalo townies. Less credible, however, due to chemistry-free casting, is the notion that Neil could develop romantic feelings for the much younger, tomboyish Rebecca, never mind her flirting and drunken attempts at seduction. Nevertheless, her optimism and refusal to be daunted by his early rudeness and cynicism help to re-humanize the man who earlier declared, “Winning is the prize and money is only a way of keeping score.”
As Neil, the rugged-looking Partridge appears far older than implied by the seven- or eight-year age difference between him and James. But he’s a good enough actor to suggest without words that this unplanned old-home week has spurred some sort of incremental feeling within, making him less of a jerk and more of a mensch.
Kevin Duggin’s expressive lensing of rural Michigan’s wintry landscapes is the standout element in a pretty basic tech package. Music supervisor Kristen Genovese’s song choices do a good job of establishing mood.