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By Merle Bertrand | March 23, 2004

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson may have invented an entire genre a few years back with “Magnolia.” Call it, the “Convergence Genre,” whereby a group of seemingly unrelated characters all converge in one place at the same time. Now, while I’m sure Anderson wasn’t the first filmmaker to use this narrative technique, you know you’ve created something special as a filmmaker when people start comparing any films that follow to yours. Such is the case with “Mind the Gap,” a gently sprawling slice of many lives drama with obvious structural similarities to “Magnolia,” from director Eric Schaeffer; a guy who knows a thing or two about creating special films.

Herb is an irascible, shuffling old widower determined to fulfill a childhood promise to a deceased friend by walking to a boyhood swimming hole. Jody, a pretty young street musician with a defective heart, won’t go anywhere, least of all Manhattan, until she gets a gig there. Malissa, who can’t go anywhere while she’s taking care of her dying mother, instead travels vicariously by listening to audiotapes of exotic locales sent to her from pen pals around the world. John is stuck alone and suicidal in his Tucson apartment where he’s been since an ill-advised affair drove away his wife and the son he misses tremendously. Finally, while Sam’s wife-to-be left him at the altar, it didn’t stop him from having a son, Rocky, born from an egg he purchased online.

As you might have guessed, given the earlier “Magnolia” references, these five disparate characters all come together in one way or another by the end of this gently moving film.

Now, it’s easy to sit here and cry “Foul!” over such contrived synchronicities — and there are a couple of whoppers in “Mind the Gap” — but to do so would miss the point. They’re only obviously contrived because they’re the ones the film chooses to highlight. There are literally millions of such chance encounters occurring at this very second in real life between groups of strangers converging at a single point. The only difference is, these stories aren’t being told on film.

Such philosophical musings aside, “Mind the Gap” is a heartwarming collection of character studies, full of people the viewer will really care about and root for by film’s end. Just watching the onion layers get stripped away in each of these characters’ lives is a gratifying process in and of itself, regardless of any synchronistic underpinnings.

“Mind the Gap” probably isn’t for everyone and those with short attention spans or who need lots of sex and violence definitely need not apply. For everyone else, this is a solid under-the-radar sleeper. Like they always say on those online DVD or CD shops, if you liked “Magnolia,” you’ll also like “Mind the Gap.”

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