Imaginary Heroes marches bravely into territory that has been well trod in films of recent years — the emotional wasteland of suburban America. As was done in American Beauty, The Ice Storm, and The United States of Leland, writer/director Dan Harris (The Killing of Candice Klein) takes a dark and angst-filled look at a seriously dysfunctional family, a marriage gone sour, parents and teenagers alike using alcohol and recreational drugs, and well-kept secrets whose specters hover over whatever facade of normality the family tries to sustain.
Narrated in voiceover by high school senior Tim Travis (Emile Hirsch), the film opens with an emotional ambush–the suicide of Tim’s older brother, Matt, a swimming champion who loathed swimming. Tim withdraws into drugs and alcohol, encouraged by his buddy Kyle (Ryan Donowho), the son of the next door neighbors with whom a long vendetta of silence has been waged by Tim’s mother, Sandy Travis (Sigourney Weaver).
Sandy, a child of the 1960’s, is not averse to smoking dope with her son and talking with him frankly on all subjects. Her husband, Ben (Jeff Daniels), first deals in denial (insisting, for example, that Matt’s place be set at the dinner table and a platter of food be placed there for the dead boy) and then enters withdrawal, taking leave from work as the bills pile up, unknown to the rest of the family. He spends his time sitting numbly on a park bench.
While Imaginary Heroes has it moments, with occasional scenes that seem fresh and deliver some emotional punch, Harris dissipates the overall effect of his film by filling it with an overabundance of incidents and peripheral characters and relationships, often left hanging like so much chad on a Florida ballot. Tim’s relationship with his girlfriend comes into play early on, only to fade into the background without resolution. A passing episode of intimacy between Tim and Kyle seems like a superfluous digression. A supermarket checker named Vern shows up first spouting existentialist lines to Tim at the hospital, later cruises Sandy at the market, and somehow ends up with Tim’s sister. Drag singer Justin Bond adds an uplifting note, even if his welcome presence remains unexplained and seems peculiarly out of context.
Even before the film slips into the cliche of having Sandy become seriously ill and hospitalized (a stock catalyst for family reconciliations) and the final revelation of secrets, any emotional impact has been lost in the mire of multiple motivations, less than fully realized characters, and tangential excursions. Some scenes are simply not credible (like Sandy trying to buy marijuana at a head shop) and the repeated shots of stars in the night sky ring the cliche bell almost as loudly as the obligatory finale at high school graduation. Harris first tries to freshen the latter up with the presumably funny honesty of the valordictorian and then bogs it down in an extended performance by Matt at the piano. It’s supposed to be an emotional breakthrough, but it hasn’t been earned and it isn’t felt. Most of Matt’s audience walks out and you may want to, too.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence of a thoughtful, if inexperienced writer/director here, and Harris should do better now that he has Imaginary Heroes out of his system.