Sometimes I feel like Sam Tucker, the sad-eyed protagonist of director-writer Ron Judkins’ latest feature “Finding Neighbors,” a Kickstarter-assisted effort about friendships, relationships, and the folks next door. Yeah, I’m often trying to rediscover my creative center at an age (63) you might consider grandfatherly, at least in the short span of an hour here and there I need to craft a readable (and if I’m lucky, enjoyable) review on a few of the hundreds of films I watch every year.
Sam, a graphic novelist with a six-year mind block since his last successful work “Bluebird Sky” (which Sam thinks was s**t), is in a rut; “Fearful of disappearing,” he would posit at one point during his journey of self discovery that aptly fits into the film’s 96-minute length. Success has turned to days of wine and left-for-dead roses, as there’s an inner void he can’t quite bridge, inventively and emotionally.
Sam is painted, broadly, by Judkins, as a comically morose character, a lazy bum in a neighborhood of loud birds, chattering squirrels, annoying leaf blowers, and, of course, some neighbors with their own confused lives. As he lands squarely in middle age, Sam ruminates on his various failures. Selling out to Hollywood (which left him none-the-better financially, after the too many women and too much booze). Not giving his wife, Mary, a child. Not providing (or even just starting) a long overdue manuscript for his agent. Or forcing his wife, a therapist, to return to the work force to support her stay-at-home husband.
Judkins, who shared Oscars for his sound work on “Jurassic Park” and “Saving Private Ryan,” with three other noms under his belt, including 2012’s “Lincoln,” has dabbled in producing, directing, and writing. “Finding Neighbors” (an awkward title for a good film) is his second feature, following 1999’s low-budget “The Hi-Line.” He’s assembled a marvelous, low-key cast, headlined by Oscar-nominated (for 1979’s “The Great Santini”) Michael O’Keefe, five years my junior and from a neighboring home town (Mamaroneck, NY) from where I grew up (we may have snacked at the same McDonald’s or the local hangout Cook’s on the Boston Post Road).
He’s joined by Catherine Dent (“The Shield”) as his moderately sainted wife, Blake Bashoff (stunning in his portrayal of Moritz Steifel in Broadway’s “Spring Awakening”) as the confused stay-at-home gay neighbor and wannabe gallery owner Jeff, the shapely Julie Mond as Sherrie, the enlightened girl next door, and Sean Patrick Thomas as Jeff’s vastly more successful lover, Paul. For the most part the first four of these take on the yeoman’s heft of the screenplay, as Sam, during his days trying to restart his career, ogles one neighbor as she showers out back and gets accused by another of voyeurism. The rare art of truth-filled conversation will eventually draw them all together as they seek repair of their various shades of emotional instability, looking for support from people you normally just seek out to water your plants while away on vacation.
Judkins direction is fine, as is the hand-held cinematography (by Tari Segal). I like the animated flourishes by Una Lorenzen that befit Sam’s character, whose illustrations are drawn by Barry Bruner. In that vein, yes, there is graphic sex in the film. The other graphic sex.
There are nice scenes set about Atwater Village, “the best little neighborhood in Los Angeles,” where most of the film was shot. The settings create a nice casual flow for the story. At a coffee shop where their misunderstandings are soothed, Jeff discovers the real identity of his quietly sullen neighbor—that of an illustrator whose works were a chapter of his dissertation. O’Keefe’s reaction of mildly WTF bemusement that he has a fan living next door, Jeff’s bold assessment (OMG, What Happened?!) of the writer’s fall from grace, and their subsequent conversation seems to thaw the first block of ice. It sets the stage for others to grapple with the various blockage in their lives, be it closure with a former lover or disappointment with a new one.
Some of the smaller sub-stories don’t flesh out, especially one involving a patient of Mary’s, or of Sherrie’s long-distance lover. Otherwise it’s a great depiction of people learning to connect and grow.
The film has popped up at various fests, including its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival last October. It also plays at the 2014 DC Independent Film Festival.
Our everyman could have the motto: Truth, passion, and the American way of procrastination. “Finding Neighbors” is a mournfully honest look at unlikely relationships.