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Imaginary Heroes (2004)

Directed by:

Dan Harris

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 111 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18

Country: Belgium, Germany, United States

The already uneasy Travis family drifts into guilt-driven atrophy after Matt (Kip Pardue), the eldest son and a reluctant swimming champion, kills himself. Matt’s brother Tim (Emile Hirsch) struggles with his sense of identity, and meanders about in a dreamy daze even when he is not dropping pills with his equally confused best friend Kyle (Ryan Donowho). Tim’s acid-tongued mother Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) harbours a disproportionately obsessive grudge against her neighbour Marge (Deirdre O’Connell), and neglects her own declining health while trying to relive her glory days. Her husband Ben (Jeff Daniels), unable to let go of his son’s memory or communicate with the rest of the family, quietly disengages himself – while Tim’s sister Penny (Michelle Williams) has long since flown the coop and only appears for awkward holiday gatherings. Matt’s death casts a long shadow over the passing year, until old secrets surface and things come to a crisis, forcing the family to start looking once again to itself and its future.

Dysfunction in the American middle-class family is hardly a novel topic for a film, but in his feature debut ‘Imaginary Heroes’, writer/director Dan Harris has clearly learnt, along with his characters, the need to come to terms with the past before moving on. For if ‘Imaginary Heroes’ draws on earlier family dramas, far from trying to ignore or deny these cinematic debts, Harris readily embraces them. The inclusion, for example, of Sigourney Weaver amongst the lead players acknowledges the more general influence of a film in which she had previously starred, Ang Lee’s ‘The Ice Storm’ (1997) – while the scenes of middle-aged Sandy resuming the pot-smoking of her youth, and a sly reference to masturbation in the shower, pay generous tribute to Sam Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ (1999), with its similar portrayal of contemporary domestic breakdown.

Where ‘Imaginary Heroes’ stands on its own, however, is in the quality of its script and acting. Hirsch (who also narrates) captures the unsettled anguish of adolescence with believably blank-eyed awkwardness, Weaver brings a hint of sexual longing to Sandy’s relationship with Tim that only begins to make sense in retrospect, and Daniels gives the finest performance of his career, complicating Ben’s paternal cluelessness with nuanced layers of passive-aggressive resentment and pained desperation. Holding it all together is Harris’ screenplay, whose naturalistic and often witty dialogue conceals a meticulous structure where everything unfolds in its proper time, so that what at first appears to be an amiably meandering drama gradually reveals itself as an elaborate mosaic of secrets and mysteries, where nothing is out of place.

Dan Harris is perhaps best known for co-writing X2: X-Men United – and he has also worked on the scripts for the forthcoming ‘Fantastic Four’ and the new ‘Superman’ film – but ‘Imaginary Heroes’ proves that he is equally at home with more grounded characters who do battle only with the problems of everyday living. It is to be hoped that when he is not moonlighting on further crimefighting capers, he continues to spend his daylight hours on less heroic, more subtle projects like this – for to judge by ‘Imaginary Heroes’, he is a serious talent to watch.

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It's Got: Flawless performances, believably idiosyncratic characters, palpable pain, and a welcome avoidance of melodrama.

It Needs: A little more originality - for all its qualities, there is little here that has not been seen before.

Alternatives:

American Beauty, Garden State, Heathers, Storytelling, The Ice Storm, The Sons Room, The Virgin Suicides, Under the Skin

Summary

An over-medicated family needs deeper healing in this impressive debut.

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