Pasadena: Sarasota Review

Solid acting, especially a hangdog performance by Peter Bogdanovich, lends an edge to well-trod dysfunctional-family territory.

Peter Bogdanovich plays the patriarch of a SoCal family that’s in the throes of arrested development.

The Thanksgiving tradition of the family meltdown receives its latest big-screen interpretation in Will Slocombe’s ensemble drama Pasadena. The variations in this batch of dirty laundry aren’t enough to reinvent the subgenre, but a solid cast, led by a wry and heartbreaking Peter Bogdanovich, find subtleties in material that doesn’t always avoid the obvious. Theatrical possibilities for the feature, which received its world premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival, rest on Bogdanovich’s compellingly offbeat work in a substantial role. 

The filmmaker and more-than-occasional actor plays Turner patriarch Poppy, who lives with his second wife, Deborah (Cheryl Hines), in a modernist house in the leafy SoCal enclave of Pasadena. A policy expert and retired international studies professor, Poppy begins his morning with a tall glass of white wine on the rocks, the bottle his constant companion throughout the day. 

Like most families, and nearly every well-to-do fictional American clan, the Turners are harboring grievances and animosities. As Poppy’s three adult children -- two daughters from his first marriage and his son with Deborah -- gather at the house for the holiday weekend, it’s evident that this is a family not so much blended as shaken and stirred. 

Lindsay (Sonya Walger), a married yoga teacher with two seemingly well-adjusted young sons and a secret from her teenage years, has a good give-and-take with half-brother Jacob (Ashton Holmes), a law student who hopes against hope that “everyone can be nice to everyone.” But Lindsay’s exchanges with Jacob’s mother are studies in barely contained rage — with Hines playing a more tight-jawed version of her exasperated wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm

Pushing everyone’s buttons is Lindsay’s younger sister, Nina (Alicia Witt), a whirling dervish of anger, resentment and silly kid stuff. Making her first appearance chez Poppy in 15 years, she arrives complete with hot-pink highlights and truck-driver boyfriend (Wilson Bethel), eager to rain on any and every parade in her sights. Witt plays her well, with convincing ferocity, but the loose cannon that Slocombe has conceived is too much, as is the carting out of family history in on-the-nose dialogue. The comic drama would have been more involving had more been left unexplained. 

But if Slocombe’s screenplay errs on the side of explicit backstory, he effectively taps into the way family members fall into assigned roles, and the way a celebration becomes a stage for taking those roles to the limit. The presence of friends at the holiday table doesn’t restrain rising emotions, especially when one of the guests (Victoria Tennant) is a longtime friend of Poppy who’s known for her beauty. Along with the airing of long-festering wounds over scandals and infidelities, the three Turner “kids” all have money problems, some more dire than others, and Pasadena casts a sharp eye on not just their sense of entitlement but the emotional messiness that informs it. 

Bogdanovich’s shuffling, sad-eyed Poppy is the center that everyone expects will hold. Interrupting conversations with non sequiturs about Rent or Abu Ghraib, he’s there but not there. When he confronts his children with his own troubles, the actor delivers the film’s most unexpected moment, and its most affecting. 

The single setting (elegantly rendered by production designer Raelyn Tepper) conveys the story’s emotional claustrophobia but never grows visually dull, thanks to the fluid work of cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham. The chirpy bursts of William C. White’s upbeat ’60s-style music score are welcome hits of wacky, counterpointing the story’s melodramatic undertow. 

Venue: Sarasota Film Festival 

Production companies: Midway Films in association with Burn Later Prods.

Cast: Peter Bogdanovich, Ashton Holmes, Alicia Witt, Sonya Walger, Ross Partridge, Amy Ferguson, Wilson Bethel, Cheryl Hines, Victoria Tennant

Writer-director: Will Slocombe

Producers: Graham Ballou, David Mandel

Executive producers: Paul M. Bernon, Sam Slater

Director of photography: Lucas Lee Graham

Production designer: Raelyn Tepper 

Music: William C. White

Co-producer: Kimberly Burnick

Costume designer: Rita Squitiere

Editor: Lauren Connelly

No MPAA rating, 84 minutes