Wildly uneven but sporadically affecting, Bobby Roth’s “Pearl” is a curiously disjointed drama that relies on the compelling performances of veteran actor Anthony LaPaglia and promising newcomer Larsen Thompson for most of its emotional impact. A few abrupt narrative transitions indicate that some scenes, for whatever reason, must have been discarded during the editing process. But what remains on screen is enough to hold attention and generate rooting interest, especially if you’re amused by inside-baseball allusions to the film and TV industry.
There is an unmistakable air of autobiography to “Pearl,” along with the distinct flavor of a labor of love. Writer-director Roth first attracted notice with two well-received indie films, “The Boss’ Son” (1978) and “Heartbreakers” (a 1984 Sundance Festival prize-winner) before concentrating almost exclusively (and prolifically) on TV movies and series television. Jack Wolf, LaPaglia’s character, is a filmmaker who evidently has made some very bad, maybe unforgivable career moves, but still sells the occasional TV script.
At one point, he lands a gig teaching filmmaking to college students — which Roth has successfully done in real-life — despite the skepticism of a dean (Bruce Davison) who suspects Jack will quit “if a spot opens up on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’” (Before you ask: Yes, Roth has directed episodes of that show.) In another scene, he hesitates to attend a party — but only until he learns the host (Reed Diamond) is “one of the top agents in TV packaging.” Hey, a man’s got to schmooze where a man’s got to schmooze.
A little bit of this wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff goes a long way, and Roth wisely devotes just enough time to it. The beating heart of “Pearl” is the title character, played by Thompson, and the tragedy that bonds her with Jack. When we first meet Pearl, she comes across as so smart and self-assured that, even though she’s only 15, she really doesn’t sound like she’s bragging while she tells a school counselor that she has her sights set on “Harvard or Yale,” and plans to pursue “a double major of political science and global economics.”
Unfortunately, she also announces, “I want to control my destiny.” And we all know what happens to people who say things like that early in a movie, right?
Sure enough, Pearl soon finds herself orphaned after Helen (Sarah Carter), her beautiful mom, is fatally shot in a jealous rage by her wealthy live-in lover (Nestor Carbonell), who then turns his weapon on himself. Eve (Barbara Williams), Pearl’s alcoholic grandmother, is in no shape to care for her. (Actually, she appears to have wandered in from a ’70s sitcom.) But when Helen’s lawyer (J. August Richards) opens a letter from his deceased client identifying Jack as Pearl’s biological father, the table is set for a story about the reluctant forging of new family ties.
Jack — whose years-ago romance with Helen is effectively dramatized in evocative black-and-white flashbacks — never knew of Pearl’s existence until Helen’s death, and isn’t terribly eager to accept paternal responsibilities. Pearl is even less enthusiastic about accepting Jack as a father — and not just because it means transitioning from private to public school, and living with a stranger whose employment opportunities seem, at best, limited.
On the other hand, Pearl can’t help noticing that, unlike Eve, Jack does not live in a home blanketed with thickets of empty gin and champagne bottles. And Jack grudgingly acknowledges that being responsible for a daughter could be a strong incentive to find a steady job — like, teaching filmmaking to college students. It’s not difficult to predict how this impromptu relationship turns out. But it’s not at all unpleasant to watch the relationship blossom.
Indeed, except for an unplanned pregnancy that plays like something out of “A Summer Place,” the only thing that might really grate on your nerves is the seriously mixed signals given in regard to Helen’s personality. Yes, she’s undoubtedly a loving mom. But Roth none-too-subtly indicates that Helen habitually attached herself to inappropriate men she never intended to marry, then made them jealous — in one case, murderously so — by taking other lovers. It’s possible that one could make a fascinating psychodrama with that as a plot. As a subplot, however, it feels kinda-sorta icky here.
Roth backs his leads with well-cast supporting players, including two — Melissa Macedo as Silvia, Pearl’s street-smart Latinx classmate, and Nighttrain Schickele as Zack, a music-store clerk just old enough to qualify when Pearl seeks a guy with “experience” — who are sorely missed when they disappear from the storyline. And cinephiles likely will appreciate the scene in which Jack tries to interest Pearl in one of his favorite films, Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions.” The guy may have obvious faults, but his good taste in cinema most certainly is a redeeming quality.