First-time writers and directors have a tendency to pour their every idea into their first stories—after all, a second chance is never guaranteed. Sometimes, the result is rich and complex; more often, like Stephen Suettinger’s debut, A Year and Change, it’s overstuffed and convoluted.
The movie spans a year (and change), at the heart of which is a sweet love story between the struggling, alcoholic Owen (played by Bryan Greenberg, late of How to Make it in America and One Tree Hill) and lonely, recent divorcée Vera (Claire van der Boom). After meeting Owen at a New Years Eve party in Maryland, Vera’s drawn to him—even though he drunkenly falls off the roof at that same party, shattering his arm—but she isn’t sure if she’s seeking love or just someone to whom to say goodnight each evening. Meanwhile, Owen’s fighting with his ex-wife, who might move to San Diego with his 11-year-old son. (Her argument is a sound one: he can’t even remember what day he’s supposed to pick the boy up for shoe shopping—and when he does, he’s usually drunk). Over the course of the aforementioned year, we watch Owen battle his demons to earn both his son’s respect and maybe a shot with Vera. Though it takes a few broken arms, he eventually puts down the bottle.
That story—in which Suettinger’s camera hugs Owen’s often hung-over face, while Greenberg milks all the soapy drama surrounding him for true emotion and van der Boom shines as a hurt, seeking woman who doesn’t resort to fights or binges to heal her pain but instead simply drives around town—is like a coffee table: simple, solid, effective and from the right angle actually quite beautiful.
Suettinger uses interstitial slow-motion shots of Maryland’s scenic landscape—from icicles dripping to water falling on daffodils to dandelion seed heads blowing into the wind—to trace Owen’s emotional journey through the year from quitting drinking to trying to be a good father, brother and neighbor. Throughout that year, his camera often rides passenger seat in Owen’s van, wherein Greenberg nails a cold, ever-present self-hatred without resulting to punched walls or emotional outbursts—and eventually the hope that shines in them.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the only story presented. While Suettinger’s direction is far from amateurish, his film suffers from clumsy writing overloaded with both clichés and stories. Suettinger and his co-writer (the relatively new Jim Beggarly) fill their script with more B plots than 93 minutes can reasonably handle, making a satisfying conclusion for any of them impossible. Here’s a brief overview of the topics covered: divorce, suicide, computer hacking, death, alcoholism, absentee parenting, paralysis, child molestation, rape, the prison system, crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay. And yes, it’s all as bleak as it sounds.
One subplot involves Owen’s older brother Kenny’s (T.R. Knight) rape charge and eventual suicide. Another follows his younger brother Victor’s (Marshall Allman) re-acclimation into society after being released from state prison for—wait for it—computer hacking. The film never bothers to explain what he was hacking or why (nor does it even portray Victor as particularly intelligent). Then there’s the neighbor whose brother was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and whose father is an alcoholic on his deathbed. It’s all entirely overwhelming, and even careful camerawork and solid performances—everyone gives a fine showing, if nothing outstanding—can’t keep it from collapsing into itself.
The dialogue certainly doesn’t help. Lines like “Isn’t it strange how you can surround yourself with a whole crowd of people, yet still feel alone?” come off like insights from a lovelorn high-schooler, while others (“I can’t stand water. I hate the taste of it.”) are practically outtakes from the Star Wars prequel films.
Yet, there’s an interesting exploration of divorce, alcoholism, and soul-searching buried in A Year and Change. The film it could have been is touching, sweet and meaningful—but that film is smothered. Instead, without breath, what we’re left with is altogether exhausting.
Director: Stephen Suettinger
Writer: Jim Beggarly, Stephen Suettinger
Starring: Bryan Greenberg, Claire van der Boom, T.R. Knight, Marshall Allman, Natasha Rothwell, Jamie Hector
Release Date: November 24, 2015