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The premise is not novel: A womanizing workaholic from Los Angeles returns to his Midwestern hometown for his father’s funeral and begins to question his priorities. Although the contours of the story are familiar and even tired, The Middle Distance — which enjoyed its world premiere at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival — squeaks past the cliches, thanks to attractive performances and locations. Although the film will never set the box office on fire, it may draw some attention for its actors and director.
Writer-director Patrick Underwood grew up in the rural Michigan area where most of the story is set, and he has a feeling for the bucolic settings as well as the provincial nature of small town life. The film begins, however, by sketching the protagonist’s fast-paced life in Los Angeles. His job is a little vague; he’s some kind of high paid consultant who is always under pressure. Neil (Ross Partridge) relieves the pressure with drink and sex. It’s in the middle of a one-night stand that he gets a phone call from his brother announcing that their father has died. Neil then returns home to help get the family homestead ready for sale. He reconnects with his musician brother James (Kentucker Audley) and with James’ no-nonsense fiancee Rebecca (Joslyn Jensen).
On his first forays into town, Neil continues his drinking binges and attempts to expand his sexual conquests. But when James is called away for a musical gig, Neil and Rebecca get to know each other better, and the hint of a forbidden romance begins to percolate. This becomes the most intriguing part of the movie, as Neil responds to Rebecca with curiosity and uncharacteristic tenderness. The relationship is developed subtly, without the kind of sexual or emotional fireworks that other filmmakers might have employed. But we become invested in their deepening rapport.
Both actors help to build our emotional involvement. Partridge, an experienced actor with many Hollywood credits, has a natural masculine presence, and he keeps us compelled by Neil even when the character is behaving badly. Jensen, a newer face, exudes poise and quiet wisdom. The director builds quiet but considerable dramatic tension because we are not sure if we really want these two to get together and disrupt James’s life. The bittersweet ending strikes exactly the right note.
The entire film is a little two low-key to score a home run. Another flaw is that Underwood never explores Neil’s relationship with his father, which seems to be a key to his character. Nevertheless, this is a modestly engaging picture that shows off some talented actors as well as a part of the country we haven’t seen.
Cast: Ross Partridge, Joslyn Jensen, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Lafleur
Director-screenwriter-producer: Patrick Underwood
Executive producers: Dean Israelite, Kelly Daisy
Director of photography: Kevin Duggin
Editor: Martin Bernfeld
Music supervisor: Kristen Genovese
No rating, 78 minutes
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