Alessandro Nivola looks like a conventionally handsome leading man, but has largely had the career of a character actor so far — something that may factor in his being relatively under-sung for an impressive screen résumé stretching back two decades now. That, and the fact that he’s often most effective as the quiet, watchful center around which more histrionic characters revolve (whether they know it or not) in indies such as “Junebug” and the recent “Disobedience.” They’re not the types of performances that typically attract awards, yet those films would lose much of their impact without the subtle gravitas he contributes.
Nivola is just about able to pull off the same trick as the central figure in “Weightless.” But Canadian music-video and commercials veteran Jaron Albertin’s U.S.-produced first feature proves unfortunately named — despite the emotional terra firma Nivola and other cast members try to provide, this drama about a taciturn loner forced into single-parenthood drifts into the ozone.
More interested in aesthetic texturing than anything else, the film shows signs of an interesting sensibility, and has some effective, atmospheric moments. Yet it obfuscates a relatively simple tale in ways that aren’t enigmatic so much as evidence of a grasp on storytelling somewhere between the unconcerned and oblivious.
Joel (Nivola) works at the county dump in an unspecified rural location (shot around Johnstown in upstate New York). He’s not exactly the life of the party, but he does have a good thing going with Janeece (Julianne Nicholson), a warmhearted girlfriend of recent vintage who seems able to coax him out of his shell. That pleasant status quo changes when Joel gets a call from an ex-partner’s mother, who curtly informs him her daughter has disappeared, and the 10-year-old son he fathered but has never met is now “your responsibility.”
Joel is no born conversationalist, but heavy-set, diabetic, 10-year-old Will (Eli Haley) is so withdrawn that nearly 40 minutes pass before we hear him speak. (He was apparently alone in an apartment for three weeks after his mother took off, a situation that like many here is referenced but never explained.) They’re an uneasy match: Joel has no idea how to behave around most people, let alone a child, and low-self-esteem case Will appears to expect neglect as his due. Only Janeece is appalled when she realizes that Joel simply leaves the kid in the empty house all day while he’s at work. What she takes for callousness, however, is something else. Joel really is trying his best; he just doesn’t know any better.
Was he, too, neglected by his parents? Who knows? Though four writers are credited on “Weightless,” the script feels like a rough sketch for an as-yet-to-be-worked out feature screenplay. Nivola is game to play Joel as a haunted, solitary man. Yet the movie barely probes the present-tense reality of that, leaving whatever past made him that way a near-complete blank (until the film belatedly kick-drops something vague about Joel’s mental-health history, which is the first and last we hear about it).
Nicholson is very good, and Johnny Knoxville sparks interest as the protagonist’s amiable boss, but their characters feel like they’ve just been introduced before they fade out of the narrative. Subplots — a neighborhood bully targets Will, social workers want to place him in a foster home — likewise introduce promising elements of conflict, then lead nowhere in particular. The film ends with one of those classic “break for freedom” fade-outs that are meant to be liberating, and may indeed feel that way — so long as you don’t stop to realize that simply skipping town doesn’t solve these characters’ problems at all.
“Weightless” treads familiar ground in revolving around an adult hermit of sorts drawn out by the needy child who lands on his doorstep. It’s to Albertin’s credit that he doesn’t milk that for predictable sentimentality or melodrama. But too often, it seems he’d rather just be shooting the locations without the people for maximum evocative pathos. Some moments of forced visual lyricism aside, the movie has a handsome, thoughtful look in Darren Lew’s nuanced color cinematography. Still, the evident care put into its occasionally mannered stylistic aspects only underlines how little affinity Albertin has for basic narrative and psychological concerns.
One suspects he would have preferred to more or less drop those last elements entirely, in favor of an audiovisual tone poem about rural alienation. But “Weightless” hangs awkwardly between that kind of “pure” conceptual abstract, and the straight drama about baggage-laden personalities it refuses to unpack. The result is artful (and well-acted) enough to intrigue, yet underdeveloped enough in the writing to frustrate. Not the least frustrating thing here is that Nivola gives a serious, hardworking performance in a role that nonetheless remains more opaque than many past ones in which he’s had a fraction of the screen time.