review for Irene in Time on AllMovie

Irene in Time (2009)
by Nathan Southern review

American writer-director Henry Jaglom's Irene in Time ranks among the most accomplished works of the artist's career. A filmmaker who continually and successfully mines his personal life for narrative material, Jaglom discovered an exciting new area of thematic exploration via his parentage of daughter Sabrina with second wife Victoria Foyt. Perhaps as a result, Irene (which Henry dedicates to Sabrina) exudes a fascination with father-daughter relationships. Jaglom has always done his finest work when he attaches his signature styles of loose improvisation and actor introspection to a single multi-layered theme that helps to rein in the onscreen events, and this drama epitomizes that trend. It is doubtful that any mainstream American feature has so courageously plumbed the complexities of father-daughter relationships, or the peerless influence that a dad can wield (positive or negative) over his little girl's future.

Tanna Frederick stars as Irene, a young single woman in her late twenties who adores her late father, and seeks fulfillment in relationships by attempting to find a romantic partner who carries all of the wonderful qualities that her dad brought into her life. We watch her endure a series of dissatisfying, and at times tragicomically ugly, encounters with suitors, including one obnoxious architect who responds to her by bolting in the middle of a date, and a misguided friend from Irene's adolescence who proposes marriage upon seeing her for the first time in six years. Over the course of the narrative, as Irene experiences one romantic disappointment after another (searching, continually, for a soul mate), she begins to uncover long-buried truths about her father that provide her with deeper and more complex insights into him than she has ever attained before.

From the outset of Jaglom's directorial career in the early '70s, his greatest strength as an artist has been courage -- the courage to lead his ensembles into naked displays of emotion that would make many other directors blush. Perhaps as a result, he arguably does far more effective work with actresses than with actors. This film (with its female-driven ensemble) marks no exception. We witness not only Irene expostulating on her experiences with her dad, but several of Irene's girlfriends, some of whom were abandoned by their fathers early on and have deeply suffered for it, giving improvised confessional monologues on this subject. As in the director's other films, the lines between fiction and reality amid the actors' monologues begin to blur, and the impression one has is that the performers are taking emotionally devastating journeys into their own hearts and souls, guided by Jaglom. One can only stand back in awe and marvel at this level of vulnerability.

Above and beyond the power of the emotionally open monologues, another strength that emerges over the course of the drama involves the writer-director's ability to place the audience one or two steps ahead of the lead character as she pursues several of the romantic dead ends, in such a way that it enriches and enhances the tonal relationship between the audience and the lead. We often see the individual disasters coming before they strike (such as during a conversation with the said architect), but this only serves to build our respect and admiration for Irene's willingness to put herself on the line emotionally as she attempts in vain to find that rare self-identification with each new man who enters her life.

If, at first glance, it appears that Irene's quest for a romantic suitor will grow too schematic (several wrong choices followed by the right choice), rest assured -- Jaglom diverges from this path. He resists neatly tying all of Irene's discoveries about her dad into one easily digestible package. In a lesser film on the same subject, a writer-director might tick off, one by one, the ways in which the lead character has matured or evolved as a product of her newfound knowledge. Here, the film's authenticity is apparent via the fact that Irene's emotional journey remains too messy, too chaotic to ever be summarized in a few short sentences. In addition, her potentially disillusioning discoveries about her father do little to shake her perpetual idealization of him, her quest for a deeper understanding of him (as illustrated by a marvelously open-ended concluding sequence that utilizes Super-8 home-movie footage from Frederick's own childhood), or her pursuit of those qualities in a suitor.

Newcomer Frederick is so emotionally persuasive throughout the film that her performance should rocket her to stardom. The film benefits from an all-star cast including Karen Black, Victoria Tennant, Zack Norman, and Reni Santoni, but Frederick's work makes her tower above the rest of the actors -- which is an impressive accomplishment given the strength of that ensemble.