'Aardvark': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A likeable debut that isn't sure how to deploy ambiguity while keeping viewers invested.

Jenny Slate plays Zachary Quinto's ethically challenged therapist in Brian Shoaf's directing debut.

A psychology-centric dramedy likely to annoy some mental health professionals, Brian Shoaf's Aardvark revolves around loneliness and estrangement and the difficulties they present for both the healthy and the disturbed. Zachary Quinto plays a man coping with undefined mental problems, whose therapist (Jenny Slate) starts up an in-all-sorts-of-ways questionable relationship with his brother (Jon Hamm), a famous TV actor. That string of names will ensure attention is paid to this hard-to-categorize, uneven debut for the playwright turned director, but even so, theatrical distribution isn't guaranteed.

The film divides its sympathies between Quinto's Josh Norman and Emily Milburton (Slate), the licensed therapist he has just started seeing. Quinto, using sometimes distracting hair/makeup effects to make himself more awkward, will be described at various points as schizophrenic, bipolar and having unnamed psychiatric conditions. The movie doesn't seem very concerned with the fine points of psychology; it just needs a way to justify the fact that Josh sees people who aren't there and has imaginary interactions with people who are.

Mostly, the subject of these hallucinations is his brother Craig (Hamm), who left town years ago to star on a long-running cop show. Josh, who calls Craig "one of the great talents of his generation," believes he has learned how to wholly transform himself through acting, and is keeping tabs on him in disguise as, say, a homeless woman or a cop on the beat.

We're inclined to doubt this TV actor is even Josh's brother by the time Craig surprises Emily in her driveway one night, wanting to see how Josh's therapy is going. When he quickly asks her out to dinner, we're forced to ask: Is this lonely woman manufacturing a fantasy of her own?

Some viewers will appreciate being presented with this question, but as the story develops, the film seems more wishy-washy than pointedly ambiguous. We don't see through Emily's eyes to the extent we do Josh's, and it's difficult to care about her budding relationship with the sometimes touchy actor, given so few clues about its reality.

Meanwhile, Josh has started seeing someone the film strongly hints is a figure of delusion: Hannah (Shelia Vand), an attractive stranger who shows up at the coffee shop where he works, waits a long time for him to notice her, then leaves without ordering once he has managed to make plans to go out with her. Here, we have more to invest in, though a filmmaking decision at the end of the film thumbs its nose at us, with the language of editing seeming to contradict the message of Shoaf's screenplay.

Real or imagined, Craig gets one last-act monologue that Hamm delivers with genuine feeling, solidifying the pic's concern with the distance that grows between family members who love but can't deal with each other. It's a payoff that would hit home whether it's emerging from Josh's subconscious or from a flesh-and-blood Craig — and regardless of the plausibility of the resolution that follows it.

Production companies: Before the Door Pictures, Susie Q Productions

Cast: Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm, Sheila Vand, Tonya Pinkins, Marin Ireland

Director-Screenwriter: Brian Shoaf

Producers: Zachary Quinto, Neal Dodson, Susan Leber

Executive producers: Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve, Brian Shoaf, Corey Moosa

Director of photography: Eric Lin

Production designer: Neil Patel

Costume designer: Aileen Abercrombie

Editor: Marc Vives

Composer: Heather McIntosh

Casting director: Bernard Telsey

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (US Narrative Competition)

Sales: Tristen Tuckfield, CAA

PG-13, 88 minutes