'A Picture of You': LAAPFF Review
J.P. Chan’s first feature co-stars Jo Mei and Andrew Pang as siblings forced to confront the disconcerting fallout from their mother’s recent passing.
Writer-director J.P. Chan pulls off some diverting cinematic sleight of hand with A Picture of You, a playful genre-shifter dealing with the type of fraught family situations that often result in overly familiar, sentimental drama. Niche audiences should respond favorably when the film is theatrically self-released this summer and positive word of mouth could help build additional momentum among the art house crowd as well.
Following the death of their mother (Jodi Long, glimpsed only in flashbacks), passive-aggressive Kyle (Andrew Pang) and his sullen sister Jen (Jo Mei) make the road trip from New York City to rural Pennsylvania to remove her belongings from the countryside home where they grew up. A tense, awkward sibling reunion becomes an almost intolerable chore as they sort through household items, clothing and personal effects to determine which they should separate from the planned estate sale. Jen finds herself particularly drawn to her mother’s books, full of fascinating handwritten marginalia, but Kyle is inclined to let it all go, shedding the detritus of family life.
Tensions build over small disagreements that the pair manage to elevate to major personal affronts, which soon necessitate grandstanding speeches, before a sudden discovery brings them both up short: Shockingly revealing images on their long-widowed single mother’s computer reveal she had a secret lover who was apparently enthusiastic about taking her photos during sex. Reluctant to confront their mother’s obviously active libido, they initially agree to dismiss the situation until they can get around to wiping the computer’s hard drive.
When Jen’s tech-savvy boyfriend Doug (Lucas Dixon) and best friend Mika (Teyonah Parris) arrive to help with cleaning out the house, the two siblings quickly clam up, but then gradually reveal their dilemma. Kyle prefers to ignore the evidence and just get through the unpleasant tasks confronting them. Jen, however, is determined to discover the identity of their mom’s mystery lover. Doug assists by retrieving the embedded GPS data from the photos, providing a nearby address for their potential target. Whether or not he can be identified will be determined by some decidedly amateur sleuthing, not to mention a series of disarming personal revelations.
Chan, working from a story he developed with Mei, slyly sets up a potentially predictable domestic melodrama, presenting characters that are well-supplied with emotional trauma. Kyle, furious over putting his life on hold for six months while taking responsibility for their ailing mother, can barely restrain his mounting disapproval toward his sister. Although Jen tries to ignore his barely disguised resentment, she can’t escape the intensifying guilt she feels over avoiding their mom during her extended illness.
As the siblings' emotional turmoil rapidly approaches the point of spontaneous combustion, Chan’s script – the best-screenplay winner at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival – skillfully twists the narrative in an unexpected direction with the startling revelation about their mother’s secret love life. The arrival of Jen’s friends complicates matters further -- with Doug’s disclosure of plans for a tentative marriage proposal and then an all-night pot smoking interlude involving Kyle and Mika (which unexpectedly leads to an extended make-out session) pushing the film into gently humorous territory. It’s Jen’s insistence on tracking down the mystery lover, however, that gives the film its fundamental comic impetus, leading to wholly unexpected developments.
Chan varies the film’s stylistic veneer of naturalism with occasional, lyrical scenes of the lush woodsy environs surrounding the family home and flashbacks to the kids’ childhoods, as well as moments of low-key visual humor, as the pair stumble about searching for clues to their mother’s secret life. Overall, however, the comedic situations tend to arise primarily out of the characters’ divergent personality traits.
Pang nicely contrasts Kyle’s scowling disapproval of his sister’s approach to the house-cleaning process and initial impatience with her carefree friends’ descent on their unwelcome domestic chores with later scenes that force Kyle to relinquish his control-freak tendencies and go with the flow, regardless of the unpredictability of events. Mei capably converts Jen’s initially unmotivated lack of focus to a determined sense of purpose that unexpectedly helps her connect with her mother’s unconventional life. In their substantial supporting roles, Parris and Dixon amusingly insinuate themselves into the siblings’ stressful situation with some welcome and often offbeat humor.
Production company: Medium 10-12
Cast: Andrew Pang, Jo Mei, Teyonah Parris, Lucas Dixon, Jodi Long
Director-writer: J.P. Chan
Producers: YasmineGomez, J.P. Chan, Robert M. Chang
Executive Producer: Duane Andersen
Director of photography:Andrew Reed
Production designer: Sara K. White
Music: Yea-Ming Chen
Editors: Kevin Barker
No rating, 83 minutes