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As film festival loglines go, it’s hard to be less enticing than the one offered for Rudderless: “When a man trying to forget his past stumbles across a box of unpublished music from his former life, he forms a small band which experiences local success and ultimately changes his life.” Add the fact that the memories the man is fleeing have to do with a dead teenage son and the music was written by the boy, and one would seem to have the makings of an unbearably maudlin indie tearjerker.
That’s not what we get in William H. Macy‘s feature-directing debut, a sober but not at all humorless film in which sentimentality is viewed as suspect, something to be indulged, if at all, in secrecy. As the father in question, Billy Crudup is deeply damaged but not self-pitying, enacting some familiar stages of cinematic mourning with intelligence and restraint. Though some plot elements are pushily therapeutic, they’re offset by others whose novelty distinguishes Rudderless from movies of its sort. The film will be seen as a debut in keeping with Macy’s history of pairing memorable idiosyncrasy with commercial instincts.
Crudup’s Sam is a divorced ad man whose son, a college student, dies in a campus shooting. After going on a bender that is elegantly communicated with a single edit, he vanishes from his life. Two years later he’s living on a sailboat berthed far from home, supporting himself with house painting work, and staying drunk most of the time.
Ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) tracks him down to give him some of their son’s things: notebooks and CDs full of music the boy had recorded in his dorm room. Though reluctant to accept the boxes, Sam finds himself unable to stop listening to the songs, connecting with his son through their lyrics and learning to play them on acoustic guitar. Motivated by an unacknowledged need to share this connection with strangers, he plays one of them at a local open mic.
Aspiring songwriter Quentin (Anton Yelchin) is gobsmacked by the tune, so much so that he stalks the standoffish older man. He comes around the boat so often Sam winds up playing some songs with him; before long, two others have joined up and a band, dubbed Rudderless, is playing the dead boy’s songs, believing them to be Sam’s. They become popular, but Sam refuses to play anywhere but the local bar.
Signs point to Rudderless becoming a rock musical of sorts, with original songs by Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus accompanying a narrative of lost men finding their voices. It is that to an extent, with a local guitar-shop owner (Laurence Fishburne) overseeing the quartet’s increasing professionalism, but the screenplay never forgets what set this story in motion. Enabling the dreams of three kids about his son’s age clearly feeds some psychological need for Sam, but this path is finite in ways Quentin doesn’t suspect.
A truly arresting third-act twist deepens the film in ways that can’t be discussed here. Suffice it to say that this film’s take on emotional closure is not at all, as it might have seemed, the familiar stuff of made-for-TV weepies. A pitch-perfect closing sequence, with Crudup manifesting the kind of connection Sam has unwittingly sought throughout the film, prompted a standing ovation from an emotional Sundance crowd.
Production Companies: Unified Pictures, Dog Pond
Cast: Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fishburne,
Director: William H. Macy
Screenwriters: Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison, William H. Macy
Producers: Keith Kjarval, Brad Greiner
Executive producers: Patricia Cox, Nathan Kelly, William H. Macy, Aaron L. Gilbert, John Raymonds, Jeff Robison, Casey Twenter, Birgit Stein, Randy Wayne, Mary Vernieu, Ali Jazayeri, Jacob Pechenik, Jeff Johson
Director of photography: Eric Lin
Production designer: Christian Stull
Music: Eef Barzelay
Costume designer: Jillian Donaldson
Editor: John Axelrad
No rating, 104 minutes
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