The magic of writer-director Melissa B. Miller Costanzo’s “All These Small Moments” can be found within the intimacy of the scenarios, the authenticity of her earnest characterizations, and the accessibility of the actors’ honest performances. In her deftly polished directorial debut, Costanzo dovetails the primary story about a teen’s coming of age with a secondary story about a marriage tenuously tied together. Though this sweet, subtle, and sentimental work is a smidge too simplistic in narrative design, it wins over any resistance with its quiet refinement and heartrending insight.
It’s a tumultuous time for the Sheffield family — particularly for high-schooler Howie (Brendan Meyer), who’s in a transitional phase, caught between teenage anxieties and the onset of adult ones. His parents, Carla (Molly Ringwald) and Tom (Brian d’Arcy James), have hit a rough patch in their marriage and are on the brink of divorce. They bicker constantly, locked in petty arguments that bleed through the walls of their Brooklyn townhouse. Both Howie and his younger brother Simon (Sam McCarthy) are feeling the weight of all their home life’s uncertainty. Not only do they overhear the fights, they also spot the clues of their parents’ unravelling marriage, surveying the linen closet and keenly deducing that their father is sleeping separately from their mother.
In an unconscious effort to displace his brewing fears about love and exact some sort of control over his life, Howie becomes obsessed with a mysterious thirtysomething boho blonde (Jemima Kirke) on his daily bus ride to school. She’s pretty and perpetually cast in a warm halo of sunlight. He dresses sharp to gain her attention, composes poetry about her, launches a half-baked stalking attempt, and makes a list of topics (e.g. “Marina Abramovic?”) to discuss if he actually works up the nerve to talk to her. He even nervously forces a tender shared moment, lightly brushing her hand after the pair miss their morning bus. Once he finally learns his mystery muse’s name is Odessa, it’s more helium in his metaphorical balloon, to float unrealistic ideas of her. But what will it take to burst that bubble?
Costanzo displays a shrewd ability to showcase different facets of humanity in a compelling but understated manner. This isn’t the type of movie that favors grandiose reveals or overly saccharine sentiments, yet it packs a powerful punch. That’s party due to the way she stages the drama, preferring wide and medium shots where the actors can utilize their settings (such as a school library for a confessional chat and the townhouse wall separating a father and his sons). It also allows the actors to react to each other in steady long takes. When she does employ closeups, it’s arresting since the actors address the camera, as if tackling their problems head-on.
It also feels remarkably refreshing that there are no villains — a result of not just dynamic writing, but also the actors’ keen capabilities. Tom isn’t demonized for straying from the crumbling marriage. James portrays him as a compelling, conflicted human. Although the film only addresses some aspects of the female mid-life crisis, Carla’s struggle with her unsatisfactory situation is given depth and poignancy thanks to Ringwald’s raw vulnerability. Howie’s awkward relationship with Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), a study hall classmate still reeling from a years-old nasty rumor, is genuine and effervescent. Smith and Meyer have undeniable chemistry, but it’s Smith’s natural charisma and the unspoken intricacies she infuses into her supporting role that threaten to steal the show.
Costanzo takes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and places it under the microscope for dissection, making it a point to show Odessa as a woman toiling with life’s chaotic tribulations. We pick up on this through subtleties — like her preferred bus seat, alone, or her insecure, withdrawn body language. Whether or not Howie sees her poorly-disguised cues is another factor entirely. He wants to cloak her sadness in romanticism, at least until their inevitable blow-up happens.
For all the movie’s strengths — and especially the way it draws astute, messy character complexities — Costanzo destabilizes her creations somewhat by making them walk an all-too predictable path. While that sets up a fascinating dichotomy, it makes us wish these protagonists’ conclusions were less tidy. She’s wildly adept at building nuance into every character-driven action and trusting her actors to bring their fully realized characters to life. However, we’re far ahead of the revelations before the characters figure them out. The narrative is back-loaded with everyone clearing the air, apologizing for the reasons that made them guarded when many will have already surmised those explanations. Still, there’s no denying this journey of reflective discovery showcases an impressive, assured new filmmaking voice.