“Xenogenic,” according to young Wesley McIntyre (Zach Braff), means “offspring markedly different from parents.” That would certainly describe Wes and his kid sister Judith (Heather Matarazzo). While their estranged parents Trix (Bebe Neuwirth) and Darrell (Mark Blum) have the good looks and grace one would expect from one-time aspiring dancers, Wes is a constantly studying borderline nerd while Judy is a brooding and frumpy plain Jane.
Then again, the kids are relatively normal and well-adjusted compared to their parents. Darrell is a broken down alcoholic and Trix — don’t ever call her “Mom,” warns Judy — is in a mental hospital, the victim of depression and a nervous breakdown following one final beating at Darrell’s hands.
Most of “Getting to Know You” takes place in a bus depot where Wesley and Judy, having returned from a useless visit to see Trix, are preparing to part ways; Judy returning home while Wes is off to college. While waiting, they meet an assortment of characters with stories of their own to tell. Foremost among these is Jimmy (Michæl Weston), an imaginative youth who claims he went to high school with Wes — the first of his many not entirely accurate stories.
Jimmy serves as the film’s catalyst, pointing out terminal employees or other riders to Judy, then launching into stories he claims he’s overhead them telling their companions.
Director Lisanne Skyler cleverly uses Jimmy’s intros to segue to these isolated vignettes. Thus, like riders pulling out of the station, the viewer, too, embarks on these slices of life. Two women on their way back from romantic misadventures in Atlantic City, for instance, or the tragic story of the terminals’ police officer and his gunned down partner or the distraught woman fleeing an abusive husband…whom she’d seen her stepson kill. Yet once Judy joins Jimmy in his storytelling, we realize that these seemingly haphazard tales may not be so random after all.
It takes a while to get to know “Getting to Know You.” Based on a series of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, the film opens a little stiffly, like a stage play awkwardly adapting itself to the screen. Skyler introduces Trix and Darrell, then sort of just lets that storyline drift for a while while she concentrates on the brooding kids.
Considering that Judy and Wesley are understandably not exactly in jovial moods, combined with their dreary bus terminal surroundings, the first half hour or so is a bit of a struggle to get through.
It’s worth the wait, however. It’s not just that Skyler does an excellent job fleshing out Judy, Wes and Jimmy. It’s the way she does it; the supporting characters’ vignettes flowing and overlapping not so much with each other, as with the troubled lives of the main characters.
By the end of this moving and intelligent film, it’s obvious that both Judy and Wesley really are xenogenic. Unlike their downward spiraling parents, they might actually make something of themselves.