Friday September 26, 1997
Home, poet Robert Frost wrote, is "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." But don't assume they're happy to do so or that you'll be any happier once you're inside. Few things in life are as frustrating as family.
Bart Freundlich's "The Myth of Fingerprints" deals with the paradoxes of family, the wariness that we sometimes have with the people we're nominally closest to, the way blood relations can get under the skin like no one else. It's a decorous film, conventionally well-made, but don't be fooled. Its emotional impact is considerable.
Writer-director Freundlich is only 27, and like any self-respecting young person he debuted "Fingerprints" at Sundance, but, not surprisingly, a prize was not in the offing. For this is not the kind of fashionable, on-the-edge filmmaking that captivates taste-makers. It is rather a picture that brings youthful passion and involvement to old-fashioned themes and concerns, that has the ability to deal with traditional relationship problems as if they hadn't been touched on before.
"Fingerprints" is not without its problems; not all of its elements work, and it can seem precious and self-conscious at moments. But these are only moments, and mostly we are thankful for Freundlich's gift for creating character, his ear for the awkwardness, bickering and free-floating anxiety that coexist uneasily with love when families dare to gather.
The setting this time is Maine, the time Thanksgiving, the participants four adult children coming together at their parents' home for the first time in three years. Two of them are arriving with new partners, but everyone's romantic lives are in for a shock before the weekend is over.
Presiding over the family is Hal, the sour, misanthropic father who'd much rather everyone stayed away. As expertly drawn by Roy Scheider in one of his best performances, Hal is forever exasperated and out of sorts, and not even the ministrations of nurturing wife Lena (Blythe Danner) can shield the family from the effects of his baleful disposition.
It's the always-angry Mia (Julianne Moore) who is the most like him, a hostile terror who has a bad word for everyone and every situation. She arrives with boyfriend Elliot (Brian Kerwin), a therapist, but he is no better at dealing with her moods than anyone else.
Oldest son Jake (Michael Vartan) has been influenced by his family in another way: He can't admit to love or commit to his girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis), whose bubbly personality appeals to the family's perky youngest child, the practical joking Leigh (Laurel Holloman).
The most openly vulnerable--and in many ways the most appealing--sibling is Warren (Noah Wyle, Dr. John Carter on TV's "ER"). Taunted by Mia for being his "usual normal, insecure, depressed self," Warren is still trying to get over his breakup with Daphne (Arija Bareikis), the woman he feels he will never replace.
When Warren finds out that Daphne is also back in town for the holidays and asking about him, a rapprochement seems inevitable. But these two have never fully confronted the reasons they split, and that process leads to the film's most moving revelations.
Also unpredictable but considerably less convincing is Mia's rediscovery of her old kindergarten beau, Leonard Morrison, who now improbably calls himself Cezanne (James LeGros). Though Moore and LeGros are among the most reliable of current performers (and worked especially well together in Todd Haynes' "Safe"), their relationship is not well-grounded in reality and is the film's weakest aspect.
Along with a script that has an affecting feeling for how people react to one another, Freundlich's ability to get the actors to flesh out his words is a further reason for the film's success. Each member of the "Fingerprints" ensemble is someone we recognize, and the group always seems like a family on screen.
Grappling with the sense of being trapped in the personalities of people they'd rather not be, wondering if it's necessary to come from a healthy family to have a successful relationship, the characters never lose their individuality. Is it more difficult to be a child or a parent under these circumstances? Sensible to the end, "The Myth of Fingerprints" says it's too close to call.
The Myth of Fingerprints, 1997. R, for sexuality and language. A Good Machine production, in association with Eureka Pictures, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Bart Freundlich. Producers Mary Jane Skalski, Tim Perel, Bart Freundlich. Executive producers James Schamus, Ted Hope. Screenplay Bart Freundlich. Cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski. Editors Kate Williams, Ken J. Sackheim. Costumes Lucy W. Corrigan. Music David Bridie, John Phillips. Production design Susan Bolles. Art director John McFarlane. Set decorator Catherine Pierson. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Noah Wyle as Warren. Julianne Moore as Mia. Hope Davis as Margaret. Blythe Danner as Lena. Roy Scheider as Hal.