Film Review: ‘The House of Tomorrow’

The sudden influence of outside stimulus helps a teen break free from his domineering grandmother, a well-meaning devotee of Buckminster Fuller.

Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Maude Apatow, Michaela Watkins.

Yesteryear’s vision of the future proves poor preparation for present-day reality in “The House of Tomorrow.” Peter Livolsi’s first feature, adapted from Peter Bognanni’s novel, charts the first steps toward normal life for a sheltered youth raised by his elderly grandmother — a onetime acolyte of architect, inventor and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller. This tale of a shy teen loner using his newfound rebellious side to refigure peer and parental relationships occupies familiar seriocomic Amerindie terrain. But it’s a pleasing effort, with smart casting and a light touch that make the somewhat predictable story beats go down easily. Unlikely to create a major splash, the film nonetheless has the right stuff to attract older-skewing niche audiences in limited theatrical and ancillary release.

While Fuller’s long career (he died in 1983 at age 87) encompassed a wide range of ideas and achievements, the ever-forward thinker was most famous for his advocacy of the geodesic dome as an economical and ecological ideal for residential and other uses. The principal characters here not only occupy one such remaining original structure, they operate it as a public showcase for Fuller’s concepts. Josephine Prendergast (Ellen Burstyn) is still her late mentor’s fervent disciple, guiding tour groups of bored schoolkids and idly curious adults through the site. At best, they regard her as a mild eccentric; at worst, a crackpot.

Such perspectives are beyond the grasp of her grandson Sebastian (Asa Butterfield), whom she’s raised alone since his parents’ deaths in an accident long ago. Home-schooled, fed on a 1970s notion of health food, discouraged from any real involvement with the world outside their retro-futurist abode, Sebastian is a dutiful assistant/student/servant. He’s got just the vaguest sense that he might be missing out on something.

He gets a glimpse of what that is when a church youth group’s visit throws him into contact with the jaded but flirtatious Meredith (Maude Apatow) and suburban-punk contrarian Jared (Alex Wolff), the contentious offspring of club chaperone (and de facto single dad) Alan Whitcomb (Nick Offerman). When Josephine collapses mid-presentation with what turns out to be a stroke, the crisis forges a tentative bond between Sebastian and this discordant family of strangers.

Arm-twisted into befriending Sebastian by his dad, Jared at first treats him as an ATM; when Sebastian responds enthusiastically to punk rock music, Jared charges him for lessons. But Jared also has a less mercenary agenda: At risk of dying young due to a heart condition, he wants to form a punk band, and is willing to enlist any new members he can. Though the two boys superficially seem wildly dissimilar, they share territory as misfits, and soon they can scarcely spend enough time together. Sebastian is also intrigued by Meredith, who is adversarial toward her brother but gradually warms up to his new bestie.

Sebastian visits the Whitcombs on the sly at first, hatching bogus excuses to run “errands” away from his recuperating “Nana.” Having had no competitors for her grandson’s attention until now, she’s not happy with his growing independence, which leads to a falling out (and ultimate reconciliation). Though Burstyn (who executive produced) is in fine form as Josephine, and the whole “Bucky’s world” angle lends “Tomorrow” its novel hook, their central relationship isn’t wholly convincing: It feels more a matter of contrivance that Josephine should have maintained such an exclusive hold on her charge, or that he would be quite so naive about everything outside their little woodsy Minnesota domain. After all, Sebastian is just a short bike ride from town, and has home internet access besides.

More satisfying are the scenes with the Whitcombs, whose domestic lives are an ordinary kind of mess. Offerman is excellent as a father under pressure trying hard not to lose patience with two teenagers who actually have fairly good reasons — separated parents, looming mortality — for constantly acting out. Wolff is also particularly good in a potentially cliched mashup of “cool rebel kid” and “Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” though Livolsi can’t fully redeem the formulaic nature of a climax in which the lads debut their punk band.

The director exercises a genial restraint even during such conspicuous crowd-pleasing moments, maintaining a self-effacing focus on character and storytelling that eschews stylistic flourishes. The design contributions and tech assembly are likewise polished without being showy, an exception being the soundtrack inclusion of vintage punk/new wave tracks (by Black Flag, the Stranglers, Reckless Eric, etc.) that abet Rob Simonsen’s more subtly nuanced original score.

There’s also good use made of archival film footage and other materials that attest to the myriad achievements and utopian ideals of Fuller, whose vision of the future now seems both prescient and sad — the latter because society has ignored or bungled so many of the things he was prescient about, to its misfortune.

Film Review: 'The House of Tomorrow'

Reviewed at Roxie Theater, San Francisco, March 21, 2007. (In San Francisco Film Festival.) Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: A Superlative Films presentation in association with Water’s End Productions. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Producers: Tarik Karam, Danielle Renfrew Behrens. Executive producers: Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Tom Dolby, Patty Quillen, Kevin Gruneich, Donna Gruneich, Bill Harnisch, Ruth Ann Harnisch.

Crew: Director-writer: Peter Livolsi, based on the novel by Peter Bognanni. Camera (color, HD): Corey Walter. Editor: Brian Williams. Music: Rob Simonsen.

With: Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Maude Apatow, Michaela Watkins.

More Film

  • Glenn Gainor to give keynote presentation

    Sony's Glenn Gainor Set as CinefestOZ Keynote Presenter

    Glenn Gainor, president of Sony Innovation Studios and head of physical production at Screen Gems, will deliver the keynote speech at the industry program of next month’s CinefestOZ Film Festival. The small but densely packed festival takes place in multiple venues near Busselton and Margaret River in West Australia. It runs Aug. 28-Sept. 1 and [...]

  • avengers-endgame-avatar-box-office-record

    James Cameron Salutes 'Avengers: Endgame' For Beating 'Avatar's' Box Office Record

    Director James Cameron may no longer be the reigning box office champion, but at least he’s gracious about passing the baton. Over the weekend, “Avengers: Endgame” officially dethroned “Avatar” to become the biggest movie in history. For a decade, Cameron’s dazzling sci-fi epic held the top spot with $2.7897 billion in global ticket sales, but [...]

  • A-Beautiful-Day-in-the-Neighborhood-Trailer

    Tom Hanks Channels Mister Rogers in 'Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Trailer

    It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood because Sony debuted the first trailer for its Mister Rogers movie starring Tom Hanks. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is inspired by a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers (Hanks) and Tom Junod (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist assigned to write a profile of the long-running television host. [...]

  • For web story

    'The Burnt Orange Heresy,' With Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland, to Close Venice

    “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” starring Mick Jagger as a reclusive art dealer alongside Elizabeth Debicki (“Widows”), Claes Bang (“The Square”) and Donald Sutherland, has been selected as the Venice Film Festival closer.  The English-language art heist movie marks Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi’s first time back at Venice since 2009, when his debut feature film, the [...]

  • A woman prays at a makeshift

    Kyoto Animation Death Toll Rises to 34; Suspect Still Too Injured to Be Questioned

    Shinji Aoba, the man suspected of setting a fire that killed 34 people at the Kyoto Animation studio, remains hospitalized and too injured to be officially arrested and questioned. Police in Kyoto have obtained an arrest warrant for Aoba but cannot serve it because of his condition. Police sources have raised the death toll from [...]

  • Azania Muendane

    Locations Africa Expo Sends Message in Durban: ‘Africa is Ready’

    DURBAN–The first edition of the Locations Africa Expo and Conference was held this week during the Durban FilmMart, with an eye toward identifying and growing the opportunities to lure incoming productions to the continent. “Locations Africa is trying to service a need on the continent to discuss the physical production…on the ground, highlighting film commissions, [...]

  • The Lion King

    China Box Office: 'Looking Up' Is Surprise Weekend Winner Ahead of 'Lion King'

    Actor and comedian Deng Chao underlined his enduring popularity with mainstream Chinese audiences by delivering a surprise No. 1 box-office hit in “Looking Up” over the weekend. It scored $38.6 million in its opening frame, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway, and displaced “The Lion King” from its perch. “Looking Up” is a family [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content