Dropped by his high school sweetheart, the perpetually timid Lawrence lives a quietly sedate life working as a pet photographer who eats solitary dinners accompanied only by his dog. When Caroline comes back into his life twenty-five years later, the romance is set to resume until a freak accident leads to Lawrence’s adoption of her son, a troubled teen whose penchant for ditching and drugs masks deeper emotional issues. Lawrence and Johnny are essentially isolated, damaged people who find it easier to relate to animals or to smoke pot than to emotionally connect with other human beings. Confronted with each other, every effort to communicate is an opportunity for disaster.
As an exploration of constructed family, director Eva Aridjis’s work is artfully nuanced. Subtlety is the film’s tact, and Aridjis refuses to manipulate the audience’s emotions with a heavy hand. This approach is bolstered by strong performances from the lead actors: the meek, yet eternally generous Lawrence (Frank Wood) and the angst ridden, taciturn Johnny (Ryan Donowho). Through dexterous performances, Wood prevents his character from becoming a Christian caricature, and Donowho tempers his character’s outbursts with enough personal anguish to avoid alienating the viewer.
Though individually worthy of sympathy, the relationship between Lawrence and Johnny is akin to two ships in the night—their growing mutual attachment is implied rather than observed, and at times the bond of family between them is hard to feel. However, the introduction of the charming Marianna (Isidra Vega) kicks the film to another level. As Johnny’s driven love interest who refuses to take s**t from anyone, Marianna forces Johnny to re-evaluate his behavior, to actually vocalize his feelings. The burgeoning romance lends volatility and variation to an otherwise consistently paced narrative.
If the drama sounds heavy, it is balanced by ample comedic relief– notably a Twix-loving, senile grandfather (who regrettably disappears, presumably off to the nursing home), as well as a dazed and confused drug dealer with a heart of gold (who, despite the stilted delivery of his lines, is destined to be an audience favorite). The humor offers necessary counterpoint, bringing us out of the dark before the story slides into pathos.
Overall, the film is alternately sweet and sad, amusing and moving. If Aridjis’s reserve sometimes prevents us from hitting the intense highs and lows of the human experience, she nevertheless delineates this small world with mastery, providing an understated commentary on finding friends and family in unlikely places. Though not faultless, this is a solid turn by the up-and-coming filmmaker.