Where else but the soaps would a family dealing with grief and guilt after the suicide of its star-athlete oldest son also have to cope with drunk driving and drug charges, sexual confusion, sibling rivalry, a neighborhood feud, a crippling illness and infidelity?
Writer and director Dan Harris (who also penned the X-Men sequel) lays it on thick in Imaginary Heroes. He lays it on so thick, in fact, that the movie comes off as a bundle of soap-opera-worthy revelations bound together with indie movie clichés about angst and the suburban family.
Harris does, however, set up a group of intriguing characters and a terrific ensemble. Jeff Daniels is refreshingly cast against type as Ben, a bullying father who is eternally disappointed by his youngest son, Tim (Emile Hirsch). He’s not athletic, tall or popular like his dead brother, but Tim’s mother, Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), does her best to shield him from his father’s attacks. The mother and son share an acerbic sense of humor and wry outlook, which bond them together and fuel the funniest and most truthful moments in the movie.
Otherwise, Imaginary Heroes is just a mess. Shortly after the older son’s wake, Harris abandons the family, leaving their internal motivations a puzzle.
There are so many points of conflict in the film that the actors don’t have enough room to fully or honestly deal with them all. The most glaring example is Daniels’ Ben, who switches from tyrant to teddy bear father with lightning speed with little provocation. The details in the drama are as forced as the emotions. Harris hammers in even the smallest points way too hard.
A drunken teen falls down the steps at a party to cheers from her friends. Fine. But having one of the kids shout, “Party hard!” makes it too much.
Likewise, Harris needn’t have posted pseudo-goths outside a head shop to show that Weaver’s suburban mom character was out of place. He also didn’t need to put army caps on old men playing cards with Tim to show that the teen’s smart-ass jokes about having a “war injury” wouldn’t be taken lightly.
Yes, Imaginary Heroes has all the realism of a daytime drama. How fitting, then, that a big family secret is delivered — like any good soap would do — in an ailing mother’s hospital room.
Showing at the Main Art Theater. (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak). 248-263-2111.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.