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There are no fireworks in All These Small Moments. A teenage boy named Howie becomes obsessed with an enigmatic blonde woman he sees every day on the bus. At home, his shrewd younger brother points to bedding in a closet and says, “Dad slept on the couch again last night.” But this film beautifully lives up to the understated ambition of its title. In her first feature, writer-director Melissa Miller Costanzo takes the slenderest of narratives — about Howie’s coming of age and the unraveling of his wearily unhappy parents’ marriage — and in sharp-eyed scenes makes those common stories feel fresh and real.
The adults in the cast are as nuanced and believable as the script. Molly Ringwald plays the mother, Carla, with a dour expression that signals all her pain and resignation as she tries, without any success, to pretend to her sons that the family is alright. Brian d’Arcy James creates a sympathetic portrait of a man who could have been the villain. He plays her wandering but conflicted husband, Tom, who seems to be mourning the way they have lost their romantic past, a genuine but unhelpful feeling. Together, they nail a low-key but wrenching scene in which Tom says he’s sorry for messing things up, and Clara says she’s sorry that she long ago gave up caring about the marriage.
As the mystery woman on the bus, Jemima Kirke, with a boho look, quietly registers an underlying sadness. Her name, it turns out, is just exotic enough to foster Howie’s dreams: Odessa.
One day, Howie (Brendan Meyer) catches her quietly weeping. We can see on his face how alarmed he is, how much he is out of his depth. It is one of Meyer’s best scenes, in a performance that is at times slightly too restrained for its own good.
Miller Costanzo gives all these characters slight quirks and off-kilter dialogue, just enough to make them distinctive and not enough to seem forced. That balance is one of the film’s great strengths. Tom arranges to meet his wife in a barber shop. She shows up but then walks out when she learns that a barber shop is his choice location for discussing their crumbling marriage.
Howie displays the paradoxical combination of insecurity and willfulness so typical of youth. He makes a list of talking points for a possible meeting with Odessa. “Marina Abramovic?” says the slightly younger brother, Simon (Sam McCarthy), tearing the list from Howie’s hands. Simon is not baffled by the name. “I can read a poster,” he says. But he knows better than his brother that it’s a stretch as a conversation-starter. McCarthy gives such natural, astute line readings that he almost steals the film.
“Either end it or don’t,” Simon later yells at his parents. “I’ve been holding my breath for months.” McCarthy makes all this sound spontaneous. (I would watch a sequel with him as that no-nonsense kid brother.)
The more outlandish scenes are just this side of implausible. Howie’s friends spread a rumor that Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), a girl he has been trading glances and short conversations with at school, has impetigo, which they call “a flesh-eating disease.” This causes Howie to give her some bluntly curious stares, and for Lindsay to pull up her sweater, revealing her orange polka-dotted bra but not a single flesh-eaten mark on her midriff.
Eventually, Howie meets Odessa, whom he has been quasi-stalking, and who seems flattered by his obvious attention. After the meeting, a relationship that seems headed in a predictable direction takes some different turns. The obsession, of course, is just a symptom of Howie’s unhappy state of mind and precarious stage in life.
Miller Costanzo has worked in art departments on many films, and expertly creates a lived-in look, from the family’s Brooklyn townhouse with its rickety banister to the farmers’ market where Odessa sells vegetables she grows on her roof. The fluid camerawork by Adam Bricker draws us into the characters’ lives, and to the apparently insignificant moments that mean everything, such as the scene when Howie and Odessa stand side by side at a bus stop. He briefly grazes her hand, and she doesn’t flinch.
There are a few small lapses. Clara and Tom each have one scene, in extreme close-up, in which they face the camera and talk about their marriage. We can guess they’re at a counselor’s office, but the scenes are unnecessary. So is Howie’s tacked-on voiceover at the end.
In a long episode, Lindsay tells Howie the truth behind the rumor about her. It’s a brutal story and Smith handles it well, but that is the kind of flat-out exposition you dread in a small first film. Here it’s a rare misstep.
Even if Howie is so much of an Everyman — or Everyboy — that he sometimes pales next to the more vivid characters around him, those others are the perfect safety net for the film. Miller Costanzo’s debut is more than promising. It should stand as a wonderfully accomplished launch to a bright career.
Production companies: Moving Pictures Artists, Vineyard Point Productions
Cast: Molly Ringwald, Brian d’Arcy James, Brendan Meyer, Sam McCarthy, Harley Quinn Smith, Jemima Kirke
Director-screenwriter: Melissa Miller Costanzo
Producers: Lauren Avinoam, Jed Mellick, Katie Leary
Director of photography: Adam Bricker
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Editors: Russell Costanzo, Matt Garner
Music: Dan Lipton
Casting: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy
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