As the opening credits roll for "Imaginary Heroes," a man's voice tells us that high school swimming champion Matt Travis (Kip Pardue) hates attention and swimming more than anyone could hate anything. By the time the credits are over, Matt, in his bedroom, has placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Writer-director Dan Harris covers a year in the life of the Travis family in the aftermath of Matt's suicide, which has left his mother, Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), and especially his father, Ben (Jeff Daniels), devastated in credible but radically different ways. The focal point of the film, however, is the Travises' younger son, Tim (Emile Hirsch), for whom the tragedy triggers a rocky but illuminating coming of age.
It would have been nice if Harris, who casts a sardonic yet compassionate eye on the Travis family, had set his sights a little higher than the typical chronicle of a dysfunctional suburban family. He knows how to create complex, believable characters and how to inspire his talented actors to superior performances — Weaver in fact is at her edgy, forthright best — and Harris has a sure sense of structure that reveals itself in his ability to pull off a series of adroitly placed surprises.
Yet Harris also takes his audience into the same old leafy suburbia that on the screen has become synonymous with drugs, sex and booze, a place where people, young or older, go only to really bad parties; such a background is also ripe for inevitable and easy caricature. Unfortunately, Harris has not entirely succeeded in providing enough background for the Travis family members to come across as more than just another pack of screwed-up, self-absorbed suburbanites.
The key, but not fatal, flaw is that Harris fails to reveal as much about Sandy as he does Tim, the film's two dominant characters. Harris tells us about Tim's dreams, interests and ordeals, and creates a sense of his daily life. Weaver's Sandy is a woman long accustomed to drawing upon her acerbic wit and withering directness as reflexive protective devices. But there's no indication what had been going on in Sandy's life at the time tragedy struck. What are her interests, activities? Weaver makes sharply clear what Sandy is like in all her complexities and contradictions, strengths and weakness and in her mordant sense of humor, but Harris provides few clues about her day-to-day existence. Like the majority of suburban dramas, there is no talk of current events — nor so much as a passing reference to art, politics, literature or religion — the very things that might provide sustenance, even diversion, in coping with a tragic loss.
In any event, Matt was decidedly his father's boy, and Ben has been thrown into a state of shock deeper than his wife or other son realizes. Sandy, in turn, feels she has a bond with Tim that she did not have with Matt, even though it may not be as deep or as untroubled as she believes. Sandy draws upon her caustic personality in coping with her grief but soon is fortifying her strong veneer with pot along with her usual cigarettes and occasional liquor. Significantly, the only Travis who is truly functional is daughter Penny (Michelle Williams), who attends a nearby college but lives on her own.
Meanwhile, Tim is beset by bullying at school, the realization that he does not care for his girlfriend as much as she cares for him, his musical aspirations and all that goes with being the surviving son, a fact that does not endear him to a father who has always regarded him a poor second to a high-achieving older brother.
In short, the Travis family does not know one another very well, and each one is going to go through considerable pain before they even get a glimmer of the value of trying to understand one another. The film's title becomes instructive: People tend to be too flawed, too vulnerable, to imagine them as heroes.
To Harris' credit, nothing about the key people of "Imaginary Heroes" is the least bit glib. Indeed, they and their issues are at times excruciatingly real. Yet it would have been a stronger film had Harris cast a fresher, more revealing eye on the privileged world in which they live.
MPAA rating: R for substance abuse, sexual content, language and some violence
Times guidelines: Complex mature themes and situations
Emile Hirsch...Tim Travis
Sigourney Weaver...Sandy Travis
Jeff Daniels...Ben Travis
Michelle Williams...Penny Travis
Kip Pardue...Matt Travis
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Signature Pictures International presentation of an ApolloProMedia QI Quality International co-production in association with Signature Pictures. Writer-director Dan Harris. Producers Illana Diamant, Art Linson, Frank Hubner, Gina Resnick, Denise Shaw. Executive producers Moshe Diamant, Rudy Cohen, Jan Fantl. Cinematographer Tim Orr. Editor James Lyons. Music John Ottman, Deborah Lurie. Costumes Michael Wilkinson. Production designer Rick Butler. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Exclusively at the Sunset 5 for a one-week Oscar qualifying engagement, 8000 Sunset Blvd., (323) 848-3500.