‘The House of Tomorrow’: Film Review | San Francisco 2017

Hits the right notes.

A sheltered teen and a latter-day punk become unlikely musical partners in a coming-of-age drama starring Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Ellen Burstyn and Nick Offerman.

Awkward straight arrow meets broody rebel in The House of Tomorrow, a confident and perfectly cast debut feature. Working from Peter Bognanni’s novel, writer-director Peter Livolsi has smoothed some of the source material’s edges, and the pieces tend to fit together a touch too neatly in a story that emphasizes the sweet redemptive power of punk rock, not its purported menace. But there isn’t a false note in the performances, and the pairing of Asa Butterfield and Alex Wolff, as mismatched Minnesota teens who start a band, is an absolute delight. Commercial playdates look like a sure thing for the well-crafted comic drama, a world-premiere selection of the San Francisco International Film Festival. 

The film’s title refers to the geodesic dome where 16-year-old Sebastian (Butterfield) has been raised since the death of his parents, homeschooled and inculcated by his Buckminster Fuller-worshipping grandmother, Josephine (Ellen Burstyn, tough as nails beneath her flowy getups). Their retro-futuristic house is also a tourist attraction and learning center, designed to spread the visionary architect’s philosophy. Certain that her grandson will be the one to change the world the way her beloved Bucky intended, Josephine has turned her ideal of “dynamic, independent” living into a kind of prison for Sebastian. 

After Josephine falls ill during a tour of the dome by a church youth group, the group’s leader, Alan (Nick Offerman, outstanding), offers Sebastian his fatherly support. Notwithstanding his dad jeans and fanny pack — and his pathological reluctance to face the truth about his marriage — Alan can have an astute sense of other people’s needs, and he uses mildly devious methods to ensure that his son, Jared (Wolff), and Sebastian keep in touch. That they do, with Sebastian spending more and more time at Jared’s big suburban house. He’s shyly attracted to Jared’s belligerent older sister, Meredith (a revelatory Maude Apatow), but his chief mission is to learn more about this strange and wonderful thing called punk, having sampled the Germs through Jared’s earbuds. A couple of guitar lessons and one stolen bass later, the unlikely duo have formed a band. 

The boys couldn’t be more different: The cloistered Sebastian substitutes stilted talking points for conversation, while Jared entertains himself with his ferocious insolence. But they’re both seeking escape from overly protective adults, and both, in a sense, are living in houses of worship where familial wounds are treated with oppressive silence. The exception is Jared’s very real wound as a heart patient; he’s still adjusting to a recent transplant, and Alan has organized his life, and every ounce of his compassionate intrusiveness, around his son’s care. Underlining that point from another perspective is Jared’s estranged mother, a solitary drinker played by a searingly sad Michaela Watkins in two brief scenes. 

British actor Butterfield, his American accent spot-on, nabs the weird formality of Sebastian’s speech and its gradual warming to a more natural cadence. There’s a physical transformation too, from gawky rigidity — witness his Martian-esque response to his first can of verboten soda — to a joyous, loose-limbed punk rage. 

Wolff tosses off Jared’s equal-opportunity put-downs with a tough veneer that’s such a seamless blend of adolescent self-awareness, fearlessness and vulnerability that it barely feels like a performance. Giving as good as she gets, Apatow’s Meredith appears at first to be a standard-issue mean girl, but reveals unexpectedly sensitive depths. 

As to the music, the boys’ thrashing is well complemented by a soundtrack of Black Flag, The Stranglers, Stiff Little Fingers, Richard Hell and other punk luminaries, with Rob Simonsen’s score offering a cheerful counterpoint, in tune with the feel-good gist of the story. Livolsi pays attention to the sort of nitty-gritty details that many let’s-start-a-band movies gloss over (a notable exception being the Swedish gem We Are the Best!): learning chords, brainstorming a name for the group, writing lyrics. As to the latter, Jared gets the ball rolling with “What are we pissed about?” 

But just like the crucial matter of a drummer for The Rash, as the boys name their act, not every dramatic element is dealt with in satisfying fashion. Plot points, medical crises included, can feel more mechanical than organic, like checkpoints on the road to resolution. Throughout the film, Livolsi incorporates footage of Fuller, in the form of House of Tomorrow educational videos (Fred Armisen provides their voiceover narration). It makes sense that the celebrated futurist’s ideas would serve as guideposts for Sebastian as he tests the waters outside the dome. Some of those guideposts are profoundly insightful; others just feel dramatically convenient. 

But Livolsi clearly has a knack for working with actors, and his portrait of broken families that don’t fit the usual definitions of that term is filled with penetrating observations. With evocative glances to the past and the future, his story is rooted in the emotional here and now.

Production companies: Superlative Films in association with Water’s End Productions
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Maude Apatow, Michaela Watkins
Director-screenwriter: Peter Livolsi, based on the novel by Peter Bognanni
Producers: Tarik Karam, Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Executive producers: Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman, Tom Dolby, Donna Gruneich, Kevin Gruneich, Patty Quillen, Bill Harnisch, Ruth Ann Harnisch
Director of photography: Corey Walter
Production designer: Robb Buono
Costume designer: Carmen Grande
Editor: Brian Williams
Composer: Rob Simonsen
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein
Venue: San Francisco International Film Festival

86 minutes