Plenty of films great and small have gone spelunking in the quiet desperation of middle-class suburban motherhood, but few have plumbed the milieu with more consistently uncomfortable results than writer-director Debra Eisenstadt’s “Imaginary Order.” Abrasive and often bleakly funny, the film is anchored by an unrestrained lead performance from Wendi McLendon-Covey as a Type A PTA mom who engineers her own absurd downfall, one well-intentioned decision at a time. Admirably acted and powered by a loopy internal rhythm, the film nonetheless wears out its welcome long before it’s done inflicting indignities on its heroine, arriving at its main point early and then repeating it again and again.
Cathy (McLendon-Covey) is a stay-at-home mom whose loneliness and sublimated regret at giving up her career are obvious from virtually the first frame. After quick-cut montages of her arduous morning ablutions set to Chopin sonatas, we watch Cathy as she helicopter-parents her distant teenage daughter Tara (Kate Alberts); fights in vain for the slightest bit of attention from her husband Matthew (Steve Little); rules a school parent volunteer group with an iron fist; and even picks up litter on the roadside with alarming intensity as she power-walks through her dull bedroom community. (There’s more than a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder to her behavior, though the film never addresses it explicitly.)
She agrees to cat-sit for her despondent, recently widowed sister (Catherine Curtin), and while she’s over at her house — cleaning it from stem to stern, naturally — she can’t stop taking notice of the loud, messy family across the street. (They yell! They smoke! They lounge in patio furniture in the front yard!) Clearly, Cathy’s life could use a shake-up, and the film is at its cleverest when it keeps upending expectations as she ingratiates herself into the family’s lives.
A breakthrough seems to be in the cards when she befriends the family’s fun-loving, spirited younger mom, Gemma Jean (Christine Woods). Gemma Jean’s unpredictable zest for life turns out to be merely the outward-facing side of a debilitating addiction, however, so Cathy takes a chance on striking up an impulsive flirtation with Gemma Jean’s estranged husband (Graham Sibley), with similarly unpleasant results. Finally, and most disastrously, she takes an interest in the last remaining member of the family, playing surrogate mom to precocious, neglected teenager Xander (Max Burkholder) while his parents are away at couples’ rehab: The third time is definitely not the charm, and at this point, her life starts to spiral wildly out of control.
The title “Imaginary Order” seems to refer to Lacanian theories of early childhood psychology, so it’s notable when, late in the film, a character finally asks Cathy point-blank, “Who are you?” The trouble is, neither we nor she ever get anywhere close to answering that question. As much as Cathy plants the seeds for her own mounting crises, she’s a predominantly reactive character, and as the film goes on, scene after scene forces her to stumble through some beleaguered response to some fresh hostility or random setback. Perhaps that’s the point, but it starts to become deadening when virtually every other character (up to and including the cat) seems to exist only to casually torment her. McLendon-Covey gives it all she has, but even her full throttle performance can’t stop the film from spinning its wheels a bit.