A parent's death as the catalyst of renewal — it's an oft-used setup, and one that undergoes its own renewal in the hands of writer-director J.P. Chan.
"A Picture of You," his modest and assured debut feature, finds estranged siblings reconnecting to pick up the pieces, tangible and digital, left by their mother. Nimbly avoiding the excesses of melodrama and the recessiveness of mumblecore, Chan and his likably low-key cast navigate hairpin turns from drama to comedy to outright farce with an impressive sense of proportion.
In the slightest interactions of thirtysomething brother and sister Kyle and Jen, actors Andrew Pang and Jo Mei (Chan's cowriter) capture a percolating mix of the tentative and the familiar. Sifting through the contents of their professor mother's modernist country house, Kyle, who was her caretaker, is eager to move on. Jen is more conflicted.
On the one hand she's contemplative, transfixed by the marginalia in her mother's books. On the other, she tries to insulate herself from grief and her brother by inviting her boyfriend (Lucas Dixon) and friend (Teyonah Parris of "Mad Men") for the weekend.
But she's propelled into investigative mode by a shocking find on Mom's computer and leads the quartet on a ridiculous yet weirdly fruitful nighttime maneuver.
The Chinese American sibs' well-deployed running joke about racial profiling is a prime example of the way "Picture" occupies the intersection, awkward and necessary, of hurt and humor. Riding emotional waves as hilly as the Pennsylvania setting's roads, the movie fluctuates between tender memories and giddy slapstick, the stuff of life.
"A Picture of You."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
Playing: at Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.
Corrected: An earlier version of this review referred to the brother and sister Doug and Jen. The brother's name is Kyle.