A predetermined audience demographic shouldn’t be the guiding principle behind creative decision-making, but it’s so hard to get a clear read on the target viewer for At Middleton, a bittersweet adult romance starring Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga, that this thought keeps returning to one’s mind for the duration of its running time. A bewildering dramedy in which two temperamentally contradictory parents meet while accompanying their teenage children on a college visit, this unusual film alternately charms and frustrates, in nearly equal measure.
George Hartman (Garcia) is a buttoned-up heart surgeon accompanying his disinterested son, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco), on a day-trip to idyllic Middleton College. Free-spirited Edith (Farmiga), meanwhile, is chaperoning her tightly wound daughter, Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), who in turn is obsessed with landing an advisory commitment from a distinguished linguistics professor (Tom Skerritt). The parents meet more awkward than cute in the parking lot, haggling over a space, but end up moments later part of the same walking group around campus, where the tour guide proclaims, “By the time the afternoon ends, you’ll have fallen in love. I guarantee it.” With each of them failing to connect with their kids, George and Edith strike up some small talk and eventually decide to explore Middleton on their own terms. Hijinks ensue, and without hashing out any of the specific unhappiness of their marriages, so, too, does a substantive attraction.
At Middleton has a workable, if fanciful conceit, but co-writer-director Adam Rodgers and his writing partner Glenn German deliver a screenplay with a lot of exposed seams. First, they labor to separate the adults from the tour group. There’s an awkward leitmotif built around the repeated use of the word “feckless,” and dialogue sometimes literalizes the elicited emotion unfolding on screen. (“Come on Hartman, get the stick out of your ass!” yells Edith as she snatches a pair of bikes for them to go joyriding.) The material with Audrey and Conrad—who spend some time together but mix like oil and water, and part after the end of the tour to have their own adventures—is less interesting and engaging, and even George and Edith’s characterizations aren’t necessarily the most convincing.
And yet (the two words that are the ultimate critical shorthand for any movie existing in this sort of nebulous middle-range of recommendation), when Garcia and Farmiga rip into one of the five or six scenes in the film that really work, none of the above matters. This is most roundly evidenced in a sequence in which George and Edith, after getting busted eavesdropping on an acting class, are given an improvisational exercise by the instructor, and then proceed to lay their souls bare. It’s a completely different animal than the audition scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but in its own way just as memorable—an acting master class, in miniature.
At its worst, At Middleton has the potential to be like one of those terribly treacly romantic comedies Andie McDowell pumped out after the critical and commercial one-two punch of Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral. But Garcia and Farmiga forestall that fate; playful and intuitive actors who establish a warm rapport, they don’t overplay the emotional poles of their characters. Farmiga, who has an infectious laugh that explodes from the inside out, is able to articulate moments of heartache with a bewitching variety of nonverbal techniques—a lean, a furrowed brow, a stifled expression. Garcia, meanwhile, is adept with reticence. The complexity of their interaction gives the characters and film rich life.
In his feature directing debut, Rodgers acquits himself in unfussy style, stitching together fictitious Middleton College from the campuses of Washington State and Gonzaga universities. Cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh makes impressive use of soft natural light to give the movie an inviting, naturalistic feeling.
There’s a better version of this same story out there in some alternate cinematic universe, and when it dips into the entirely expected and indulgent pot smoking scene between George and Edith, it feels like At Middleton has reached a nadir from which it might not escape. To its makers’ credit, however, the film doesn’t end in a place of infuriating stupidity, but rather sensibly apportioned realization and catharsis. Are adults buying that these days?
Director: Adam Rodgers
Writers: Adam Rodgers & Glenn German
Starring: Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga, Spencer Lofranco, Nicholas Braun, Tom Skerritt, Peter Riegert, Mijana Jokovic
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2014