Brothers defining love and limits

Times Staff Writer

In recent years Christopher Munch has emerged as one of the most distinctive American independent filmmakers. He created a splash with his 60-minute dramatic vignette "The Hours and Times" (1992), in which he sensitively speculated what might have occurred between John Lennon and the Beatles' gay manager, Brian Epstein, during a brief interlude in Barcelona in 1963. He followed that with the feature-length "Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day" (1997), a remarkably evocative account of the struggle to bring rail travel to Yosemite, and then "The Sleepy Time Gal" (2001), in which Jacqueline Bisset gives the performance of a lifetime as a dying woman longing for contact with the daughter she gave up at birth -- and having no way of knowing that the daughter (Martha Plimpton) similarly yearns to discover the identity of her birth mother.

The incisive exploration of the complexities and contradictions in relationships between people that have characterized Munch's four films -- "Color" was as much about its hero's journey of self-discovery and quest for identity as it was about the Yosemite Valley Railroad -- continues with the poignant "Harry and Max," which reaffirms the depth of Munch's perceptiveness.

To describe Munch's films as character-driven seems crude -- even though they are -- considering his easy, flowing visual style. There is a natural, effortless feeling to the way a Munch film unfolds, and with "Harry and Max" Munch is fortunate to be working again with the gifted cinematographer Rob Sweeney, who also shot Munch's last two features.

Max (Cole Williams) is a 16-year-old L.A. high school student who has already begun to emulate the success of his older brother Harry (Bryce Johnson), a 23-year-old former boy band idol.

Harry is based in New York but stops over in L.A. on his way to a concert tour in Japan for a long-deferred camping trip with Max.

The bond between the brothers has always been close, so close that on a Bermuda vacation they once briefly crossed the line into incest. Max, who is gay, would like to repeat that Bermuda interlude, but Harry gently refuses.

Max is focused and responsible while Harry, at once an alcoholic and workaholic, is reckless and teasing.

Even though Max is attracted to Harry's ex-girlfriend (Rain Phoenix), he would like to see Harry reunite with her because Max believes she could be a stabilizing factor in his brother's wayward life. For his part Harry would like to see Max escape the clutches of their mother (Michelle Phillips), who manages Max's career and is likely to put it before his education. Harry is on the outs with his parents yet supports them.

The point of "Harry and Max" is that Max, more mature than his older brother, discovers as part of growing up the need to establish and respect boundaries even in an era of sexual fluidity. At the same time Munch creates a touching portrait of brotherly love between two siblings who clearly only had each other to depend upon for security and emotional nourishment as they were growing up.

To consider "Harry and Max" as being about incestuous feelings would be shortchanging it, because the film is really about the evolving nature of love and the need to define it.


'Harry and Max'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Blunt sexual talk, some sensuality, adult themes

Cole Williams...Max

Bryce Johnson...Harry

Rain Phoenix...Nikki

Michelle Phillips...Mother

Tom Gilroy...Josiah

Justin Zachary...Jordan

A TLA Releasing presentation. Writer-director Christopher Munch. Producers Roni Deitz, Munch. Cinematographer Rob Sweeney. Supervising editor Frederick W. Helm. Music Michael Tubbs. Costumes Kristen Anacker. Art director Doran Meyers. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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