Sometimes the dramatic core of a movie is so on target and emotionally persuasive that you can forgive small accompanying missteps. That's the case with this terrific coming-of-age seriocomedy from Italian multihyphenate Roberto Faenza, who adapts Peter Cameron's 2007 novel.
Toby Regbo stars as James Sveck, the 16-year-old son of a hyperdysfunctional Manhattan family. His mother Marjorie (Marcia Gay Harden) is a four-time divorcée whose most recent husband maxed out all of her credit cards on a Las Vegas gambling binge; sister Gillian (Deborah Ann Woll) is having an affair with a married university professor, and plans to author a tell-all memoir in order to profit from the relationship; and dad Paul (Peter Gallagher, who's superb) is a narcissistic executive, obsessed with the wrinkles around his eyes and interested in dating svelte young women decades his junior. Amid all this craziness, it's little wonder that James should feel so lost or have so many unresolved neuroses: When we first see him, he's contemplating a leap from the roof of an apartment building, and he acknowledges in voice-over what little use he has for many aspects of contemporary life.
The theme of this movie recalls the assertion made by Joan Didion in her essay "On Self Respect" -- that one of the byproducts of self-esteem involves liberating oneself from others' opinions and behavioral expectations. Accordingly, James -- who endures his parents' constant criticism of his eccentricities and feels freakish in the company of everyone -- must learn to embrace his uniqueness and listen to the desires of his own heart, no matter how odd or offbeat they may seem to bystanders. In the process, (we infer) his chronic anxiety will dissipate. Faenza and his co-writer Dahlia Heyman include not one but two emotional anchors for James -- his venerable grandmother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) and a life coach (Lucy Liu) -- each of whom encourages him to march to the beat of his own drum, to realize his innate dreams and passions. The Burstyn and Liu sequences form the soul of the picture by helping to define James' arc. Not a single line of dialogue in these scenes feels ill-advised, misplaced, or gratuitous -- all are masterfully gauged, flawlessly acted, and entirely convincing.
The surrounding sequences send up the Gotham elite, with their bizarre excuses for contemporary art, meditation crazes, and materialistic obsessions. In theory, that's a grand idea. But the scenes with Harden, Gallagher, and especially Woll are so broad that they qualify as all-out farce. A sequence in which Woll shoots faux-sexy posed photographs of herself with a webcam epitomizes this idea. Taken on its own, the scene delivers laughs, but in the broader context of the movie, it's slightly over the top. Scenes like this might have been more effective with a tone of subtle, dry satire -- something, say, along the lines of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. Faenza and company fare much better with comedy in some inspired flashback sequences -- the nutty behavior in these scenes (such as a group sing-along on a bus, and a heavyset prep-school girl with the funniest dance moves since Elaine Benes) can be conceptually justified. This is more or less the same device used (for example) in Frank Perry's Diary of a Mad Housewife -- comically extreme behavior as a product of the central character's distorted perspective -- and it works equally well here.
In the final analysis, the picture bounds over its negligible flaws and delivers a dramatic home run. Faenza -- heretofore unknown in the States -- is easily the single most brilliant film artist now working in Italy, and has built a decades-long career specializing in stirring, offbeat dramas. So it isn't at all surprising that this movie, like the writer/director's prior efforts, rises and succeeds on the basis of the central character's finely nuanced evolution. At heart, this is a sensitive, beautiful coming-of-age story, and it leaves one richly satisfied.