By Rory L. Aronsky | October 26, 2005

The beauty of upstate New York is accentuated in “The Reception” by Derek Wiesenhan’s photography which startles with the haunting white of the two-story house, and the snow. Constantly, the cinematography feels as if it’s teetering on the precipice between dying light and the dark, an apt observation of the themes of identities not being what they are. A shame then that it all feels like such a cheat. Characters don’t always have to be likable; they just have to have something within them that’s worth watching. It’s what keeps our eyes, unblinking, on Christopher Walken. In this house, however, with Frenchwoman Jeanette (Pamela Holden Stewart), her companion Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), her daughter Sierra (Margaret Burkwit), and her husband Andrew (Darien Sills-Evan), we are allowed that attraction for a time before it is forcibly pulled away from us, wondering just what the heck is going on and what’s the proper reaction for bombshell after bombshell with seemingly no other purpose than to keep our attention on a dying story.

Jeanette and Martin are a unique couple in that they live together and love each other, even though Martin is gay. Being an artist in this mountain area of upstate New York with blank canvases, he is satisfied. This is his sanctuary, far away from the city, trying to be inspired for his work. He has a rule against Jeanette being in his studio, on the other side of their 300-acre property, which predictably comes into play later. At least two days are filled with Martin thinking in his studio and dinner in the early evening. Then, a surprise. Sierra arrives with Andrew in tow. Like mother, like daughter as both their lovers are black men, which plays into the themes as well, both men wondering where their places are in life, where they belong. Naturally, personalities cross and crackle, conflicts emerge, especially when Andrew dislikes the property, but badly fakes compliments. Dialogue here is simply spoken. The characters don’t have to say anything grand to make a point and at times, the snowy weather does it for them.

Even with all this surrounding beauty, domestic tranquility must fall as secrets are revealed to us by each couple’s actions. Sierra is there to collect a rightful inheritance from her grandmother, which is in the hands of Jeanette. Jeanette explodes with irrational outbursts, which are just a tad powerful, once the laughs from Stewart’s French accent disappear, it sounding like nothing more than an aged Inga (Teri Garr) from “Young Frankenstein”. For a time, all of these actors bring forth feelings that are understood. Frustrations abound, but it’s enough to keep watching with questions rolling around in the mind. Then, an obvious allusion to the theme that undermines the thinking ability of anyone watching this, followed by an AIDS bombshell which comes at the wrong time because, who cares? Rather than being a part of the character who reveals it, it feels tacked on simply to get attention. Then another character reveals that he isn’t who he has been all this time. It’s as if Quint in “Jaws” suddenly decided to swim back to shore to pursue a dream to become a ballerina. It catches you off-guard at first, but doesn’t do anything beyond that. Suddenly, we’ve been cheated as these men and women fall victim to an overbearing screenplay. What happened to who we were watching? How can we even watch them after all this has happened? It doesn’t matter that they engaged in unexpected actions, but in that it’s such a jolt that we’re hardly allowed enough time to fully absorb it before the next surprise comes along. This isn’t a horror movie. It’s a drama. Drama does involve the progression of characters from one point to another, with sometimes life-shaking changes in between, but in feeling like we’ve been cheated out of fuller characters, “The Reception” doesn’t make its intended impact. When the days at the house end and the results of the emotional turmoil settle, with two of the occupants driving away, the feeling is mutual. We’ve seen enough. Just drive.

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