Everything about Andrew Wagner's intimate and intelligent film screams low-budget. From its digital video production values to its interior New York locations to its flat, overly deliberate pace, Starting Out in the Evening is the definition of indie filmmaking. Except when it comes to the performances.
Wagner's remarkable cast grounds his dangerously precious and all-too understated film while generating real dramatic sparks. Led by the glorious Frank Langella, the cast spins an involving web of relationships that are as interesting as they are intelligent. And much like Peter O'Toole in last year's Venus or John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island, Langella doesn't just dominate the story — he is the story.
Langella is Leonard Schiller, a New York novelist whose work has fallen out of print while he's spent the last decade trying to finish his latest and probably last book. Leonard's dedicated and serious; he dons a jacket and tie before sitting down at his typewriter. His routine is as regimented as it is uncompromising, dampening his relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) and cutting him off from much of the world outside his modest apartment.
Enter Heather (Lauren Ambrose), an admiring grad student who proposes to save Leonard's career by writing her thesis about him. An adoring and fiercely ambitious twentysomething, Heather's literary and personal motives become hard to separate as she thaws Leonard's guarded nature, earns his friendship then pushes things into a calamitously strange romance.
Though the setup appears destined to deliver a somber melodrama, Wagner's shrewder than that — his characters are surprising and unsettlingly real. While it's easy to see Heather as a shameless and overly entitled academic, her brashness is born of youth and her affection for Leonard is sincere. She longs to map the emotional landscape of her favorite writer through his words, but is unaware of how much she projects herself onto his pages.
Leonard, in contrast, knows all too well that his writing is merely "fingerprints," only a hint of the life he's led. But locked inside his earliest work is the seed of emotional turmoil. That upheaval came to a tragic end and became a sad excuse to hide from the messiness of life and thus defanged his work.
It's heady stuff and not nearly as pretentious as it sounds. Overshadowing the ontological discussions of literature and life is a poignant story about a proud, selfish, lonely man who must face that he's running out of time and words. Despite the gulf between their ages (and some awkward missteps in Wagner's script), Ambrose and Langella create an involving and distinctively adult relationship that brims with real emotion: His, a cautiously hopeful confusion, hers a precocious and selfish naïveté.
It's all held in contrast to a subplot involving Leonard's daughter who desperately wants a child but loves a man (Adrian Lester) who doesn't. Though it takes an overly sentimental wrong turn in its final minutes, Taylor is so good you forgive Wagner's Hallmarkian flourish.
The temptation will be strong to dismiss this small cinematic gem the same way tweedy white writers like Leonard are dismissed in lit circles of hip righteousness and knowing irony. Give in to that bias and you'll be missing out on one of the smarter films and three of the best performances of the year.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.