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Rediscovering her passion for music, a middle-aged woman draws her teenage son out of seemingly intractable sullenness in the low-key drama Life Inside Out. The earnest film’s straightforwardness and down-to-earth characters — especially the lead performance by Maggie Baird — have a gentle appeal, but its tendency to spell out every emotion and theme in on-the-nose dialogue undercuts its potential impact at nearly every turn.
Delivering messages of reassurance, the Kickstarter-funded low-budget feature could parlay slots at the Hollywood and Heartland festivals into bookings at other fests that showcase comforting fare, and its sympathetic portrait of middle age would seem a natural for cablers like Lifetime and Hallmark.
Baird, who wrote the screenplay with costar Lori Nasso, plays Laura, a youthful 46-year-old living in the middle-class suburbs of Southern California with her husband (David Cowgill) and their three teenagers — and growing financial worries. Sorting through old stuff, she finds a guitar from her pre-motherhood days as an aspiring singer-songwriter, and promptly reconnects with her love for music. Before long she’s traveling to the city — where she’s unlikely to run into people she knows — to perform at weekly open mic nights at L.A.’s Club Fais Do-Do, her youngest son, Shane (Finneas O’Connell), riding shotgun.
The excursions at first serve as a handy excuse for Shane to avoid the conventional masculine activities like sports and fishing that his father, brothers and friends expect him to participate in. But quickly they light a spark in the nearly uncommunicative boy, who has inherited Laura’s talent and soon surpasses her in terms of musical dexterity.
First-time director Jill D’Agnenica lets the open-mic sessions play out at considerable length, and they effectively convey a sense of community among disparate characters who bring varying degrees of artistic yearning and talent to the small stage. Baird imparts a lovely tentative quality to Laura’s performances, letting her confidence build naturally and without the triumphalism that often characterizes such movie narratives.
Laura’s growing sense of purpose and belonging are especially touching given the lack of support she receives from her perpetually angry sister, Lydia (co-scripter Nasso), who’s trying to enlist her help in a sales venture involving scrapbooking. Laura’s performances inadvertently lead to a new opportunity for Lydia — one that, in a realistic touch, she grabs without a word of gratitude. Laura’s mother, long deceased, was her champion, and she now fills that role for Shane.
With the help of Michelle Waring’s production design and cinematographer Guido Frenzel’s solid camerawork, D’Agnenica captures the small-town feel of life on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Every interior is lived-in without calling attention to the fact. Baird gets Laura’s relationship to her housekeeping just right, especially in an early scene in which she prepares dinner: She embodies years of backstory in the character’s comfort, aptitude and frustration. Similarly, O’Connell puts across a believable portrayal of an adolescent misfit without overdoing the angst.
Given the realism of the lead performances, it’s unfortunate that the screenplay puts too fine a fine point on everything it wants to say, explaining it all for the audience rather than generating emotionally involving tension. What conversation doesn’t make clear, song lyrics do — although the plain speaking works better in the pared-down acoustic numbers.
Venue: Hollywood Film Festival
Cast: Maggie Baird, Finneas O’Connell, Lori Nasso, David Cowgill, William Dennis Hunt, Emma Bell, Goh Nakamura
Director: Jill D’Agnenica
Screenwriters: Maggie Baird, Lori Nasso
Producer: Tessa Bell
Executive producers: Bruce Baird, Janet Chen, Julian Kalb, Ken Kalb, David Kang, Hyanghee Kim, Jason Knapp, Paul Song
Director of photography: Guido Frenzel
Production designer: Michelle Waring
Music: Elliott Goldkind
Co-producers: Maggie Baird, Jill D’Agnenica, Guido Frenzel, Lori Nasso, David Lee Goldberg
Editors: Philip Malamuth, Jill D’Agnenica
No MPAA rating; 103 min.
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