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'At Middleton': A romance for grownups

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At Middleton

Rating:
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If you enjoy Hawke & Delpy, you’re gonna feel right at home.

Lyrical and sweet in every sense of that word except saccharine, "At Middleton" brings us an exceptional feature debut from filmmakers Glenn German and Adam Rodgers.

Starring Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia (who also produced), "At Middleton" tells the tale of two parents accompanying their children on a tour of Middleton College, an institution that despite being small (excuse me, intimate), nonetheless boasts great artistic works in residence, and a linguistics legend on faculty.

For two of our characters these attributes hold great and mighty weight; for the other two, we'll just say “not so much.” Unfortunately for all four, the two pairs comprise one of each.

Father George - a bow-tied, buttoned-down heart surgeon who always does the right thing – feels Middleton to be a little slice of heaven and the perfect environs for starting son Conrad on the road to success; son Conrad, skating through life on his good looks and impressive cool factor, remains deeply persuaded that any place embracing George’s Leave-It-to-Beaver earnestness is best avoided at all costs.

Things don’t start well. Before even stepping from his car, George butts heads with Edith, the free-spirited devil-may-care mother of Audrey, a young woman on a mission.

For Audrey, this is the first day of her Middleton Experience, on which she will set forth under the gentle steerage and attentive mentoring of said linguistics legend promising a direct path to future glory. For Edith, it’s an unwelcome flashback to the bo-rinng school exercises that never convey what one actually needs to know, and she behaves accordingly, making it her personal project to loosen up those taking it seriously (in other words, to annoy the hell out of George and Audrey).

But when Edith and George become separated from the group, the day becomes something else entirely. Middleton, as colleges are wont to do, envelops them in its sealed bubble containing the whole world’s possibility.

Daily life now suspended and distant, the two sharpen each other as metal on metal as Edith leads George on a picaresque adventure, and George, the most unlikely creature imaginable, gives Edith a glimpse of the joy to be found in focus.

Where it leads, you won’t hear from me. The ending leaves one, as it does them, wrestling a flurry of questioning and what-if. What I will say that if you enjoy "At Middleton", you’ll want to check out "The Bridges of Madison County", "The Invisible Woman", "Stage Beauty" (after you read my remarks about "The Invisible Woman"), and "Celeste and Jesse Forever". (In the event you haven’t experienced all of them, let me assure you that they end in various ways for various reasons, so none of them have been spoiled by this tip!)

Of course such a story lives or dies on the strength of performance, and equally of course Garcia and Farmiga perform beautifully. Even more importantly, they perform beautifully together. Farmiga’s sister Taissa (21 years her junior) shines as Audrey; the striking family resemblance adds a charming layer to their scenes together (think "Wall Street"), and with Vera’s clear coaching at work, Taissa continues on her path toward an enduring acting career.

"At Middleton"’s most impressive feature lies in its being a feature length debut, and a three-fold debut at that. Co-written by Glenn German and Adam Rogers, they divided and conquered with German producing and Rogers in the director’s chair. So effective were they that on those counts they can consider themselves fully grown as artists; room for growth as is true for all in life, of course, but certainly past the learning stage.

(It’s worth noting that they no doubt benefitted greatly from having Garcia on site; if you haven’t seen his "The Lost City", you’ve missed a gem. He worked sixteen years to get that made, and it was worth our wait.)

Where "At Middleton" lost a star from me was in some of its storytelling; in this area alone it faltered, lingering too long in the “isn’t it fun to watch people get high” cliché, and whiplashing Audrey from dedication into obsession. Such foibles are nothing that won’t be rectified with experience, but they distracted, and undermined the momentum built during the first half of the film.

More unfortunately, however, they overshadowed – without due return – the actually quite poignant ending as it relates to the experiences of Conrad and Audrey moving forward. Independent of what George and Edith decide for their own relationship and it effect on their lives, this day spent together will inform the lives of their children in profound and lasting way, but that element drifted past almost imperceptibly under the heavy-handed attempts at having life imitate art.

Had German and Rogers not worked quite so hard at being cool, and instead allowed their own story to evolve fully, "At Middleton" would definitely earn four stars from me, and perhaps even five.

But in any case, to all I say “Celebrate!” and it’s my great hope that we may one day again meet George and Edith.

Been working well for Hawke & Delpy…

Story: Two parents accompanying their children on a college tour become separated from the group, and found with each other.

Genre: Romance, comedy, drama

Starring: Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga, Spencer Lofranco, Taissa Farmiga, Tom Skerritt, Peter Riegert

Directed by: Adam Rodgers

MPAA: R

Running time: 99 minutes

Houston release date: January 31, 2014 at the AMC Studio 30

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or the AMC website

Screened online Jan 28 2013

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