Andrew Wagner had a hundred hours of footage for his first film. As he was about to begin cutting with his editor, he attended a question-and-answer session for the Sundance Film Festival, where he one day hoped to show his movie. There, director of programming John Cooper said the following: "At Sundance we're open to every kind of film. Don't try to read our tastes, because they're so varied. ... There is only one film you probably shouldn't make, and if you do, don't send it to us. And that's a film starring your dear old mom and dad."
Which is, of course, exactly what Wagner had done. To clarify: Not only had he written a film about his family; he had cast his family to star in it -- his nonactor parents and his two actress sisters, one of whom is Emily Wagner of ER semifame. And this film was about a family road trip, spearheaded by Wagner's mother, in which the parents and sisters set out to find Andrew's brother, a writer who has gone MIA in LA. In other words: Wagner's New York family, in a minivan, traveling across the country in search of him. They can't get away from each other, and we can't get away from them. And they have, well, issues. Sundance? This trip's headed straight for hell.
And yet somehow, it works. Once Wagner and editor Terri Breed whittled a hundred hours down to a tidy hour and a half, The Talent Given Us turned out to be a whip-smart and skin-crawlingly intimate film that, while hard to take at times, is worth the trouble. Wagner absents himself and focuses on his parents -- and more particularly on his mother Judy, a woman recognizable to anyone who has visited New York City's Upper West Side or has any awareness of the Jewish people. She is by turns a martyred mother, a neglected wife, and a sympathetic woman just beginning to deepen, to wake up and discover the authentic parts of herself long since left behind. When Wagner asked her to star in his film, she reportedly said, "Are you crazy? Nobody wants to look at my fat face for two hours!" and continued to protest for five months. Then, when Wagner showed up in New York with a camera and a sound man, Judy delivered a fantastic, nuanced performance of a character with longings and complexities -- and a woman who is most likely an exaggerated version of herself.
The Talent Given Us is scripted, though it doesn't seem so. Except for a smattering of clunkers (most of which are saddled onto the unfortunate Emily, whose role as a body-obsessed, therapy-addled actress is overripe), the dialogue is naturalistic and witty, delivered in the awkward, dissonant music of actual family interaction. Wagner understands conversation; he gets the way that people crosstalk, undercut, overshare, and attempt, in vain, to get their needs met by the very people who can't and won't do it -- i.e., their family. The relationship between his parents, in which Judy is engaged in a fruitless quest to be loved and acknowledged by Allen, ailing and oblivious, is nearly totemic: Who hasn't witnessed this classic pattern? Who hasn't watched one parent attempt to convince the other to give the ungiveable?
Wagner's sisters are also a sight. Maggie, an actress in New York, harbors no doubts about her own magnificence, even as her sister Emily, with an eleven-year role on a major television drama, can't find a mote of confidence to save her life. Maggie has opted for denial, in which she upholds the family myth of happiness and togetherness (never mind that nobody can locate Andrew); Emily has chosen blame. The two openly discuss their sexual neuroses (and practices) with their parents, sharing details we wish we didn't have to hear, but that's the point. This is how it goes in families. We're all trying, in different ways, to deal, or to avoid dealing. Wagner is spot-on in his portrayal of addiction, and his film is a virtual survey of the options: therapy, drugs, food, sex, romance, gambling, eating disorders, exercise obsession, faux-spiritual quests, vanity, and the aforementioned denial and blame -- anything, it seems, but direct address of the problem.
In the end, The Talent Given Us resorts to a bit of a copout, moving toward a resolution of the seemingly unresolvable and using a couple of gimmicks to showcase its otherwise absent writer-director. (Unfortunately, Wagner's delivery is the least authentic of anyone's; perhaps that's why he left himself out of the film.) It would have been stronger without both of these things, just as it could have benefited from a softening of Emily's lines, or perhaps of her tone. It also would have been darker -- a fate Wagner seems to want to avoid, even at the expense of painting his father's unacceptable behavior as quirky or, at least, inevitable. Still, there is lots of good stuff here, hard as it is to watch.
A humble warning: Not a good film to see with your parents.
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