There’s more plucking acoustic guitar in “Broken Diamonds” than can be heard in your average coffee shop — one of innumerable indie filmmaking clichés employed by “Broken Diamonds,” the story of a wannabe author, his schizophrenic sister and the crossroads they find themselves at when their father dies. Penned by Steve Waverly and directed by Peter Sattler (“Camp X-Ray”) with a dogged attention to cornball conventions, it strikes not a single authentic chord, and that also goes for the lead performance of Ben Platt, whose overdone theater-kid turn further dooms the material’s stabs at humor and pathos. Consequently, the prognosis — for both its theatrical (July 23) and VOD (Aug. 23) releases — looks dire.
On the eve of a move to Paris to try his hand at writing a novel, Scott (Platt) has his life upended when his dad dies, leaving him in charge of caring for his volatile sister, Cindy (Lola Kirke), who hears voices, acts unstably and has been a lifelong center-of-attention burden on Scott. Cindy promptly gets thrown out of the mental health facility in which she resides, meaning she’s forced to join Scott in his soon-to-be-empty apartment — where, thanks to her loose-cannon condition, she causes a fire that compels them both to relocate to their dad’s old place, now that their stepmom Cookie (Yvette Nicole Brown) has vacated it.
Thus begins a misadventure of schmaltzy predictability. Scott intends to sell his dad’s house but he can’t get Cindy to sign the papers, just as he wants to hawk his car, only to have Cindy dent it. He tries to get Cindy a job, but she derails that employment endeavor through strange behavior. The pair run into Cindy’s old friend Julia (Debs Howard), who’s now a successful actor, and attend her going-away party, where Cindy makes a scene by practicing yoga and acting bizarrely around her high school boyfriend Billy (Edward Ruttle). Cindy subsequently tries to leap out of a moving car, rails at her brother for seeking to abandon her for France, stops taking her medication and goes MIA, all as Scott rolls his eyes with exasperation, voices his frustration via sarcastic comments and fumes over his sister’s interference with his plans.
Absentee parents, wacko siblings, dreams of escape, crazy high jinks, suicide attempts, snarky humor, repeated flashbacks to fragmented (and uniformly silent) childhood memories and climactic healing and reconciliation are all part of “Broken Diamonds’” hackneyed stew, which director Sattler sets to a stream of plaintive singer-songwriter ballads and portentous orchestral arrangements. Not once does the film deviate from its stock narrative and formal template, thereby rendering everything twee, strained and unbelievable. Moreover, rather than taking Cindy’s mental health issues seriously, Waverly’s script conceives of her as simply a catalyst for comedic and/or sad chaos, as well as a device designed to facilitate Scott’s transformation.
That change comes after Scott’s own hang-ups are concisely and explicitly diagnosed by Cindy’s therapist in what stands as the clunkiest scene in a movie full of them. Such hokey gracelessness abounds, including from Platt, who over-delivers with every line, expression and gesture. There’s an artificial performative quality to Platt’s embodiment of Scott, with the actor going big at all times with smirks, sighs, smiles and tears. His protagonist feels unreal, and ultimately, so too does everything else in “Broken Diamonds,” which may concern damaged individuals in search of connection and unity, but is neat and tidy to a cheesy fault.