'Almost Friends': Film Review

Courtesy of Austin Film Festival
A tale of inertia that never quite gets started.

Freddie Highmore plays a young would-be chef who has put his dreams on hold in Jake Goldberger's romantic drama.

In its meandering way, Almost Friends touches on serious coming-of-age themes. Parental dysfunction, teen pregnancy and emotional trauma are some of the plot points in writer-director Jake Goldberger's third feature (after Don McKay and Life of a King), a comic drama that's sometimes appealingly gentle but more often frustratingly amorphous. There are instances of wit and sensitivity scattered through the screenplay, but they have no cumulative impact amid the lackluster direction and general dearth of urgency.

Though the actors create persuasive moments, there's plenty that's unconvincing in this story of Charlie (Freddie Highmore), a twentysomething who's stuck in neutral and gradually wending his way back toward a sense of purpose. For starters, the film doesn't sell the key premise of Charlie's culinary passion. Other characters speak of his talent, and it's clear that something has quashed his ambition, but there's no compelling evidence of the pilot light that once burned bright.

Away from the built-in friction of his higher-concept TV work on The Good Doctor and especially Bates Motel, Highmore's performance takes a while to find a groove. Struggling to chat up high school senior Amber (Odeya Rush) at the coffee shop where she works, Charlie is all hesitant mannerisms and stutters. But once he's done channeling early Hugh Grant, the actor brings Charlie more into focus, suggesting the depths of pain beneath the self-deprecating surface. There's some nicely underplayed buddy chemistry between him and another famous former child actor, Haley Joel Osment, who's underused as Charlie's dependable wingman, Ben. 

With his restaurant dreams on the back burner, if not permanently extinguished, Charlie is biding his time as an assistant manager at a revival house, hanging out with his sharp-tongued friend Heather (Rita Volk), and embarrassed to still be living with his mother (Marg Helgenberger) and her second husband (Gary Moore). They live in comfort, and the dependability of Charlie's stepdad takes on new meaning when his long-time-no-see father, Howard (Chris Meloni), blows into town like bad weather. He's an inveterate gambler and liar, and as absurd as it is that he worms his way back into his ex-wife's household, Meloni conveys the manipulative charisma that enables Howard to do it, injecting much-needed tension into the otherwise slack proceedings.

Howard's presence starts to shake Charlie out of his hibernation, as does his deepening friendship with Amber. The awkward but undeniable sparks between them are complicated by her long-term relationship with Brad (Taylor John Smith), a track star whose single characteristic, self-absorption, is a clear script signal of his ultimate expendability. In Amber's slacker cousin Jack (Jake Abel), Goldberger reiterates his theme of inertia (the film's original title was Holding Patterns). The character, whose chief pursuit is drinking, is also an echo of Howard: a jerk with an unsettling magnetism, Abel's portrayal effectively off-center.

The reason for Charlie's detour from his goals, revealed about an hour into the proceedings, makes emotional sense. The scene is well played by Highmore and Rush, and Goldberger handles it with sensitivity and no fuss. Yet even so, as the film taps into an intrinsically fascinating subject — the ways that we can derail our lives — it can feel insubstantial. Almost Friends unfolds in intriguingly unfamiliar Mobile, Alabama, locations, but it never gets to a place where its tale of lost and found dreams matters.

Production companies: Let It Play, Animus Films
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Odeya Rush, Haley Joel Osment, Jake Abel, Rita Volk, ​Marg Helgenberger,​ Chris Meloni, Taylor John Smith, Gary Moore
Director-screenwriter: Jake Goldberger
Producers: Alex A. Ginzburg, Tony Lee, Jim Young, Jake Goldberger
Director of photography: Jeremy Mackie
Production designer: Rodrigo Cabral
Costume designer: Rachel Stringfellow
Editor: Julie Garcés
Composer: Eric V. Hachikian
Casting director: Eyde Belasco

101 minutes