It’s sometimes possible for a story to have an emotional impact even when there’s nary an original element in it. Such is the case with the new indie drama written and directed by Bobby Roth. The filmmaker, whose acclaimed 1984 film Heartbreakers has undeservedly lapsed into obscurity, here delivers a familiar-feeling but affecting tale about a middle-aged man who finds emotional redemption when he’s suddenly tasked with parental responsibilities he never imagined he’d have. Starring Anthony LaPaglia and impressive newcomer Larsen Thompson, the low-key Pearl proves all the more moving for its stylistic restraint.
Thompson, making her feature debut, plays the title role of 15-year-old Pearl, whose life is savagely uprooted when her mother Helen (a magnetic Sarah Carter) is murdered by her wealthy boyfriend (Nestor Carbonell), who then turns his shotgun on himself. Suddenly, Pearl, who’s been attending a posh private school and plans on eventually enrolling in an Ivy League university, is left with only her troubled, alcoholic grandmother (Barbara Williams) to care for her.
Except, that is, for Jack (LaPaglia), a formerly successful filmmaker, artist and writer whose life, as made evident by his first appearance when he’s shown contemplating putting a gun to his head, has taken a severe downward turn. Just as it seems he’s about to go through with his suicidal plans, he receives a call from a lawyer (J. August Richards) notifying him that his long-ago former girlfriend, Helen, has died. In a plot element that won’t surprise any viewers, Jack soon learns that Helen stated in her will that he is her daughter’s biological father and should assume guardianship upon her death.
Neither Jack nor Pearl is very happy at this turn of events, with the former suddenly confronted with a hostile teenage daughter and the latter less than thrilled by this stranger who’s clearly seen better days and whose ramshackle lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired.
Interspersed with the present-day storyline are black-and-white flashback scenes depicting Jack and Helen’s whirlwind romance after meeting in Europe and the subsequent disintegration of their relationship after she cheats on him.
The parallel narratives prove the film’s strongest element, preventing it from lapsing into predictable beats as it chronicles Jack and Pearl’s gradual rapprochement and her coming-of-age struggles with finding friends in her new school environment and her burgeoning sexuality. Many of the plot elements are groaningly predictable, such as Jack facing the complexities of tampon shopping when Pearl has her first period, or Pearl’s courtship of a slightly older record- store clerk (Nighttrain Schickele), who is romantically interested but wary of her underage status. But other moments, including Jack enduring the skepticism of a college dean (Bruce Davison, making a strong impression in a cameo role) to whom he applies for a filmmaking teaching position, possess an offbeat authenticity.
Most importantly, the film never succumbs to the bathos that might have been expected from its melodramatic plot elements (although a climactic scene set in a cemetery comes awfully close). The filmmaker keeps the proceedings grounded, displaying empathy and insight about his very different main characters. He’s also elicited terrific performances from the two leads, with LaPaglia delivering a soulful, understated turn and Thompson showcasing the sort of dynamic charisma that promises a terrific future.
Pearl suffers more than a little from its obviously minuscule budget (although there was apparently enough money for songs by the likes of Tom Morello and Patti Scialfa Springsteen). And it’s unlikely to find much of an audience at the virtual cinema and digital platforms to which it’s been relegated. But the film marks a welcome cinematic return of its talented writer/director after decades of television work.
Available in virtual cinemas and on demand
Production company: Jung and Restless
Distributor: Quiver Distribution
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Larsen Thompson, Sarah Carter, Barbara Williams, Nestor Carbonell, J. August Richards
Director/screenwriter: Bobby Roth
Producers: Bobby Roth, Jeffrey White
Executive producers: Gary Fleder, Smitty Smith
Director of photography: Chris Burns
Production designer: Vaughan Edwards
Editor: Jean Crupper
Composer: Paul Haslinger
Costume designer: Genevieve Tyrrel