By Brian Lafferty
June 24, 2011 (San Diego) – 3 Backyards tackles one of my favorite movie subjects: A seemingly quaint, picturesque small town that masks a dark undercurrent. This foreboding, unsettling subtext is displayed in the opening title sequence, which is set against an ironic canvas of woods, houses, cats, and hummingbirds,
Director and screenwriter Eric Mendelsohn’s script cuts between three stories. John (Elias Koteas) is a weary business in a strained marriage. His flight is cancelled so he roams around a seedy part of town. Christina (Rachel Resheff, in her film debut) is a little girl who misses the school bus and encounters a weird man. Edie Falco (of TV’s Nurse Jackie) goes into hyperdrive as a star-struck housewife who drives a celebrity (Embeth Davidtz) to a ferry.
Mendelsohn and cinematographer Kasper Andersen breathe lots of style into 3 Backyards. There is a lot of color, with the filmmakers having an affinity for green. The soft lighting attractively suits the airy, breezy atmosphere. The camera’s frequent and floaty dolly and tracking shots reveal the uncomfortable truths of small town suburbia and the lower depths of the inner city.
The haunting and eerie score, by Michael Nicholas, has a scent of irony when placed against the small town backdrop. My first response was that it was overpowering, but that’s not the right word. If it were overpowering, it would have been loud and none-too-subtle.
Intrusive is more like it. It’s fitting, since the movie intrudes upon the lives of these characters and takes them to places they don’t want to go. The flutes and harp act like the musical equivalent of entering someone’s home uninvited or asking personal questions when it’s unwarranted.
Mendelsohn’s script forces us to eavesdrop, whether we like it or not. In one scene John is drawn to an African immigrant applying for a job at the diner he’s patronizing. Although he listens intently, he doesn’t know the whole story about the woman (and neither do we). He wants to approach her (and on some level we may want him to) but he never summons up the courage.
That’s the style. Unfortunately, that’s all the movie is. Great style, yes, but no substance. The characters aren’t compelling except the actress. Davidtz gives not just the best performance, but the most real as a celebrity who apparently had a nervous breakdown.
The screenplay lacks narrative juice. Christina and John’s stories are dull; they mostly stare off into space walking and waiting around. Only the celebrity story has a meaty narrative but Falco’s uncomfortably hyper performance and her character’s tactless statements constantly turned me off.
I also felt misled. The movie is dark but the opening scenes made me expect pitch-blackness. Most of the time I felt Mendelsohn tried to play everything safe. Just when it looked like things would get ugly, he pulled back in hesitation, afraid to go through with it. It doesn’t help that he wraps up everything too neatly and happily.
3 Backyards is currently playing at the Reading Gaslamp.
A Screen Media Films release. Director and Screenplay: Eric Mendelsohn. Cinematography: Kaspar Andersen. Original Music: Michael Nicholas. Cast: Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, and Rachel Resheff. 88 minutes. Rated R.