'Imaginary Order': Film Review | Sundance 2019

IMAGINARY ORDER Still - Publicity - H 2019
Franck Tymezuk/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The human comedy, cringey-style.

'Bridesmaids' star Wendi McLendon-Covey toplines Debra Eisenstadt's comic drama as a stay-at-home mom whose seemingly picture-perfect life is coming apart at the seams.

Other than the compulsively fastidious lead character — played to unsettling perfection by Wendi McLendon-Covey — there's little that's neat and tidy about Imaginary Order, and that's one of the movie's key strengths. Writer-director Debra Eisenstadt, making her Sundance debut with her fourth narrative feature, sidesteps the orderly three-act path toward redemption with an unpredictable story of a control freak losing her grip. The filmmaker's grip on the storytelling could be tighter, especially in the second half, which at times seems to lose focus, much like the floundering protagonist. But when it clicks, the film is a provocative combo of emotional fumbling, droll asides and shrewd insights. 

And, every step of the way, McLendon-Covey is a revelation. Known primarily for comedy (BridesmaidsReno 911The Goldbergs), she wields her devastating timing in riveting ways here, portraying a well-to-do SoCal wife and mother who feels increasingly rejected by her teenage daughter and is convinced that her husband is having an affair. 

McLendon-Covey'sCathy, a Westsider with well-established routines, stumbles into a sort of surrogate family when her own seems to have no use for her anymore. She tends to regard her husband, Matthew (Steve Little), with a gaze that veers between suspicion and disgust, the latter being a comic specialty of the actress. Cathy's involvement in her daughter's middle school — as a volunteer, as a concocter of other-the-top entries in cake-baking contests — does nothing to bring the girl closer to her. In fact, seventh-grader Tara (big-screen first-timer Kate Alberts, a natural) barely tolerates her mother's attention.

Things are not much better between Cathy and her recently widowed sister, Gail, who's played by an excellent Catherine Curtin. The two performers create a persuasive sibling testiness. ("Stop asking me things she asked you to ask me," Cathy snaps, referring to their mother.) Adele Fenner's production design speaks volumes about the differences between them: There's the colorful, lived-in messiness of Gail's house and the precise geometric neutrals of Cathy's — notably the kitchen where she, Matthew and Tara take their habitual positions each morning like figures in a tableau. 

Cathy's visits to Gail's place during a six-week cat-sitting stint offer a much-needed change of scenery — and the chance to indulge her compulsion for tidying up, in jaw-droppingly intrusive ways. Gail's beloved orange tabby doesn't take to Cathy, but the new neighbors do — in jaw-droppingly intrusive ways. A couple with a teenage son, they're a hot-mess mirror version of Cathy's ultra-organized domestic scene: Gemma Jean (a knockout performance by Christine Woods) has a girlfriend but is still living with her husband, Paul (Graham Sibley), who's an off-putting mix of milquetoast and creep. Fifteen-year-old Xander (an appropriately odd and exasperating turn by Max Burkholder) at first appears to be the only grown-up in the family. "You seem like a normal person," he tells Cathy upon meeting her. "What are you doing with my mom?" 

Drawn into the presumptuous Gemma Jean's magnetic spell, the health-conscious Cathy is soon shocking herself by smoking cigarettes, indulging in daytime drinking and popping pain pills for the festering, untreated cat bite on her arm. The women's friendship begins with a medical emergency for Gemma Jean — and there will be others. Plus an escape from rehab. Plus the matter of a rat that requires poisoning — because every toxic cycle has to begin somewhere. And this one will end badly. Through it all, Woods makes her self-absorbed character's offhand confessions as poignant as her passive-aggressiveness is terrifying.

With her maternal instincts thwarted on the home front, Cathy channels them toward Xander, and things get super-cringey. Morphing from strange but reasonable kid into a would-be seducer, extortionist and stalker, he's definitely his parents' son. Cathy's ambivalence toward a teenage boy's emotional games is no less maddening than the games themselves. McLendon-Covey doesn't play for sympathy, letting every awful misstep, whether well-meaning, shudder-inducing or both, speak for itself. And Eisenstadt lets no one off the hook, though her compassion for her characters is clear. 

With a visual style that's more functional than expressive, the director focuses on performances and chemistry, drawing convincing work from the cast. After a strong first half, though, the action grows unwieldy, with some sequences choppily edited, falling flat or simply going nowhere — in particular, a section involving Tara's brief disappearance that feels like a mistake. 

But Eisenstadt's dialogue is sharp, in ways that are discomfiting, absurd and recognizably human. Early in the film a key piece of information surfaces about the creative career that Cathy abandoned for motherhood. In a more conventional film, this would set in motion a plot thread of renewal: She'd reclaim her creativity and heal herself in the process. But this is not that kind of story. The characters in Imaginary Order all prove surprising, yet not always in good ways. They're smart and they're foolish. They're needy, insecure, self-medicating. They blunder on, goofy and aching, and sometimes they tend to unhealed wounds.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Ace Pictures in association with In Motion Pictures and Iron City productions
Cast: Wendi McLendon-Covey, Christine Woods, Max Burkholder, Kate Alberts, Steve Little, Graham Sibley, Catherine Curtin, Sofia Trejo, Nina Barry, PaSean Wilson, Kate Blumberg
Director: Debra Eisenstadt
Screenwriter: Debra Eisenstadt
Producers: Debra Eisenstadt, Cosmos Kiindarius, Timur Bekbosunov, Peter Wong
Executive producers: Annie Chang, Johnny Chang, Calvin Choong, Emma Lee
Director of photography: Franck Tymezuk
Production designer: Adele Fenner
Costume designer: Kris Deskins
Editors: Debra Eisenstadt, Clark Harris
Music: Mel Elias
Sales: Cinetic, ICM

104 minutes