Imaginary Order

Wendi McLendon-Covey is best known for playing Beverly Goldberg on The Goldbergs, but her comedic and dramatic talents go far beyond the sitcom. In Imaginary Order, directed by Debra Eisenstadt, McLendon-Covey carries the film with her wonderful portrayal of another housewife and mother, Cathy, whose ordered life flies to pieces when she finds herself envying her sister Gail’s train wreck of a new neighbor, Gemma-Jean (Christine Woods). Gemma-Jean has an ex-husband who still lives with her, a girlfriend she’s seeing, and a son who’s stopped speaking to her. 

Up to this point, Cathy’s family is muddling along in a normally dysfunctional fashion. Her daughter Tara is a surly teenager. Her husband Matthew is a clueless, but well-meaning buffoon. It is the calm before “Storm Gemma-Jean” makes landfall. 

Gail asks Cathy to watch her cat, Floyd, while she’s out of town. Cathy is badly scratched by Floyd when the curmudgeonly feline attacks her. The wound festers throughout the rest of the film, an infected, oozing metaphor for her life. Gemma-Jean suddenly appears at the door needing emergency help with cramps and nausea, tells Cathy she’s pregnant and must go to the hospital. Cathy takes her, but it turns out she’s not pregnant, just having her period. A condescending male doctor tells Gemma-Jean that at her age pregnancy was unlikely, and goes on to enumerate the signs of perimenopause. 

“…she finds herself envying her sister Gail’s train wreck of a new neighbor, Gemma-Jean…”

Gemma-Jean takes Cathy out to thank her, feeling a Bloody Mary would be the appropriate drink. Cathy winds up falling into Gemma-Jean’s toxic orbit, drinking too much, getting hooked on painkillers and taking up smoking again. Where Cathy spackles over her troubles with OCD cleaning and exercise, Gemma-Jean day-drinks and smokes weed.

In the course of one horrifyingly ill-advised 24-hour period, Gemma-Jean’s girlfriend dumps her, prompting her to drive drunk and crashing her car, sending her back to the hospital. Cathy takes more pills and passes out in Gail’s house leaving the door open for Floyd to escape. When Gemma-Jean’s ex, Paul, comes by the next day, she wakes to discover the cat is missing and Paul helps her put up signs and search for Floyd. This is apparently enough of a bonding experience that the two of them wind up having sex on the floor and Paul then confesses his violent sex fantasies to her. 

The next day Gemma-Jean and Paul announce they are going to couples rehab (again) and ask Cathy to check in on their son Xander while they are gone. She decides to show him, Xander, how a real mom takes care of her children. The film goes down another very dark rabbit hole when Xander’s reaction to being mothered by Cathy is to express sexual attraction to her. When Cathy rejects him he sets his sights on her tween daughter Tara.

“…an identity crisis, struggling to decide whether to be a comedy, a drama, or perhaps something even more sinister.”

The film departs (intentionally) from the usual setup and payoff of narrative elements in unsettling ways. Accountability does not often circle back around in this story. Perhaps it should have been called Unresolved Threads.

Imaginary Order has an identity crisis, struggling to decide whether to be a comedy, a drama, or perhaps something even more sinister. Xander is a sociopath, but he’s disturbingly presented in a sympathetic light as a victim. He is, in fact, an absolute creep. The other characters are people going through something, but Xander is unrepentant and irreparably broken.

The focus of the film swings wildly from one neurotic through-line to another. There is humor, drama, and sexual indiscretion, with entertaining and sometimes insightful moments, but the themes are so narratively ill-defined that it never gels. All credit goes to Mclendon-Covey for holding the proceedings together as well as she does. She makes a mediocre, sloppy script entertaining by keeping the audience engaged in the fate of her character. 

Imaginary Order (2019) Written and directed by Debra Eisenstadt. Starring Wendi McLendon-Covey, Max Burkholder, Christine Woods. Imaginary Order screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

6 out of 10


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