By Peter Calder, Reviewed by Peter Calder

Herald rating: * * * *

The drama of family dysfunction is a current favourite genre of American independent film. Director Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan, both making feature debuts, here achieve the wistful and affectionate tone that distinguished The Station Agent and Pieces Of April: all are films that observe odd but authentic characters with not a trace of condescension.

Willowy Chicago art dealer Madeleine (Davidtz) marries George (Nivola) after a high-speed, high-octane courtship. Soon after, Madeleine "discovers" a reclusive eccentric artist, David Wark (Taylor), whose bizarre paintings, full of sex-obsessed Civil War imagery, look like Hieronymus Bosch's kindergarten crayon work.

Resolving to sign him up, she finds that he lives in South Carolina, near George's family of origin. George reluctantly agrees to take Madeleine home. Their arrival disrupts a family setup as repressively ordered as it is emotionally chaotic.

George's mother Peg (Weston) has less of a grip on reality than she would like everyone to think; his father Eugene (Wilson) has long ago sought refuge in his workshop; brother Johnny (McKenzie) doesn't know whether to hate George or ignore him. The sunny, chattering exception to this air of gloom is the heavily pregnant Ashley (Adams) who embraces her sudden sister-in-law with infectious glee.

The film's plot describes a circuitous route on its way to the climax of Ashley's confinement. Madeleine affects a convincing sincerity as she courts the shy artist but in this subplot we sense her mixed motives and feelings. The film is, in the end, a meditation on isolation and belonging and its most astringent irony is that Madeleine, who looks down on both Ashley and David Wark, is more isolated than either of them.

She is, at times, slightly more irritating than the writer and director probably intended (it's hard to imagine how any half-dressed woman could embrace her brother-in-law and not expect what happens here) and there is an uncomfortably fetishistic sense that Morrison can't take his eyes - or his camera - off his lustrous star.

George, for his part, is oddly underdrawn, a character of opaque motives, from the moment he disappears immediately after arriving, abandoning his wife to fend for herself. The paralysing effect that family can have, turning functioning adults into reflexively dysfunctional children, is rich material, but the film doesn't know what to make of George.

It is Adams who offers the purest pleasures. Her Oscar-nominated Ashley is dizzy and dizzily charming, free of artifice and malice, the canary in a coalmine who is always the first to feel the effect of the toxic environment. She's a knockout and makes the film, despite its shortcomings, deeply pleasurable.

Verdict: Affectionate and poignant offbeat family drama graced by great performances particularly Amy Adams' Oscar-nominated turn

Cast: Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Hoyt Taylor, Celia Weston, Scott Wilson
Director: Phil Morrison
Running time: 106 minutes
Rating: M, offensive language, sexual references
Screening: Academy

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