Victorian melodrama makes a comeback in the independent drama So B. It, which had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival. This is not meant as criticism, at least not entirely. The well-acted family drama, helmed by veteran Stephen Gyllenhaal (the father of Jake and Maggie and the director of such films as A Dangerous Woman and Losing Isaiah), has its hokey, sentimental moments, but it also contains a compelling narrative of the kind we don’t see too often in our post-modernist era. In any case, the pic deserves to be seen for its fine performances by veterans and newcomers alike.
Heidi (Talitha Bateman) lives in Reno, Nevada, with her mentally challenged mother (Jessica Collins) and a psychologically challenged caretaker, Bernadette (Alfre Woodard). Given her mother’s disabilities, Heidi has very little knowledge about her family history, but when a few hints arrive, she decides to travel by herself back to New York State to unravel the mystery.
Bernadette, whose agoraphobia keeps her inside their apartment, has awakened Heidi’s interest in literature, and some of their favorites are 19th century novels like Jane Eyre. But the novel that So B. It most closely resembles is Oliver Twist, the tale of a lost orphan boy gradually uncovering the truth of his privileged family background. Viewers need to have a taste for slightly overcooked melodrama to respond to the film, but English majors should enjoy the classical outlines of the tale.
A group of exceptional performances strengthen the pic, even for viewers who will find the plot too contrived for their tastes. Bateman is a major discovery, and wins our sympathy without ever milking our tear ducts. Woodard delivers a startling tour de force. She conveys generosity and empathy, but in the scenes that depict her wrenching struggles to overcome her fears of stepping outside, the actress works with fierce physical energy. Collins avoids cliché in her thoroughly convincing portrayal of a woman with very few resources.
In supporting roles, Cloris Leachman has an engaging cameo as a cat lady who befriends Heidi on her long bus journey, and John Heard makes a late appearance as Heidi’s impatient but not unwelcoming grandfather. (He has aged remarkably gracefully since his days as a heartthrob several decades ago.) Jacinda Barrett and Dash Mihok are most appealing as a couple who want to adopt Heidi.
Gyllenhaal must be given considerable credit for this collection of expert performances. He also brings cinematic flair to scenes depicting Heidi’s journey across America. The plot of So B. It isn’t always easy to swallow, but the depth of emotion generated by the actors helps to compensate.
Venue: LA Film Festival (Limelight)
Production company: Branded Pictures Entertainment
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Talitha Bateman, Jessica Collins, Jacinda Barrett, Dash Mihok, John Heard, Cloris Leachman
Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Screenwriter: Garry Williams, based on the novel by Sarah Weeks
Producers: J. Todd Harris, Orien Richman
Executive producers: Adam Tenenbaum, Michael Nelson
Director of photography: Patrick Murguia
Production designer: Maya Siegal
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
Music: Nick Urata
Not rated, 98 minutes