'Weightless': Film Review

Quietly thoughtful but feels incomplete.

Alessandro Nivola plays a man trying to care for the son he just met in Jaron Albertin's wintry drama.

A man struggles to care for the preteen son he just met in Weightless, Jaron Albertin's directing debut. A showcase of sorts for Alessandro Nivola, the picture expects a lot from his taciturn performance, sometimes seeming to believe its air of moody concern will suffice in place of a more expansive story. Though hardly a failure, the serious-minded work is less affecting than it might've been, relying sometimes on hints that are needlessly ambiguous and on symbols that don't quite click.

Nivola's Joel drives trucks at the county dump, quietly spending his spare time with more voluble co-workers or with new girlfriend Janeece (Julianne Nicholson). We suspect early on that his quiet nature signals some kind of mental slowness, a hypothesis bolstered by the concern shown to him by his boss Ed (Johnny Knoxville, quite sympathetic in a small role). When Joel gets a call informing him that he needs to pick up the child his estranged wife has abandoned, Ed volunteers a week of half-pay vacation time so Joel can sort out the details of being a caretaker.

It turns out that Will (Eli Haley), an overweight diabetic, was left alone in his apartment for three weeks when his mother disappeared; as a result, he's even more withdrawn than Joel. Though Joel does the little he can to make his trailer a welcoming home — it's almost heartbreaking to see him dust off an old inspirational poster to decorate the boy's room — the kid has little to do but sit on the front steps while his father goes to work.

Encounters with a doctor and social worker soon point the film toward a familiar narrative — a child's unlikely guardian sees his custody threatened by skeptical authority figures — but the screenplay by Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Hunger) doesn't follow the usual road map. It avoids familiar emotional-bonding scenes; withholds proof of Joel's capacity to make good decisions; and removes Janeece from the picture early on, instead of using her to provide encouragement to Joel and maternal warmth to Will.

Nivola gives us a sliver of insight into his character's good intentions as the film chronicles Joel's baby steps; while dad's at work, Will opens up gradually with the help of curious neighbor girl, Carla (Phoebe Young). But Albertin scatters narrative bread crumbs that may prove instead to be red herrings: The film begins with a scene of anger or grief that will never be explained. (We might conclude that it's a tragic flash-forward to the pic's final scene, but a difference in wardrobe argues against that.) It offers midfilm hints of suicide and escape that are less provocative than confusing. And repeated shots of goldfish and watchful birds probably worked better as metaphors on the page than they do onscreen. As circumstances push Joel into either walking away from or stepping up to fatherhood, Weightless can't seem to make a case one way or the other.

Production companies: Smuggler Films, Kingsgate Films
Distributor: Paladin
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Eli Haley, Julianne Nicholson, Johnny Knoxville, Phoebe Young
Director: Jaron Albertin
Screenwriter: Enda Walsh
Producers: Patrick Milling Smith, Greg Shapiro, Erin Wile
Executive producers: Brian Carmody, Jim Reeve
Director of photography: Darren Lew
Production designer: Tania Bijlani
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Editor: Eric Nagy
Composer: J. Ralph
Casting director: Richard Hicks

R, 98 minutes