Give Dan Harris, the writer/director of Imaginary Heroes, plenty of credit for boldness and ambition. Not many kids fresh out of Columbia University would have the wherewithal to tackle a complex family-crisis drama with four or five different kinds of trouble running through it and half a dozen crucial minor characters hanging around the edges. That Harris co-wrote the big-budget action sequel X2: X-Men United comes as a second surprise, and as evidence of his versatility: Ultra-personal, Heroes is anything but a blockbuster.
On the other hand, whatever kudos go to Harris for the length of his reach tend to be overshadowed by inexperience and enslavement to genre. The manicured lawns and expensively furnished living rooms of upper-middle-class suburbia have already been so thoroughly overrun by filmmakers looking for Caucasian dysfunction (not to mention the literary search parties led decades ago by John Updike, Richard Yates and John Cheever) that there's hardly any trauma left to mine. If the authentic terrors of The Ice Storm and American Beauty weren't enough to satisfy America's taste for the nice-white-family blues, what would be?
Still, Harris presses on into familiar territory. The Travises, comfortably installed in a neat, two-story semi-manse on a quiet, elm-lined street, are the kind of civil, undemonstrative people who keep their emotions buttoned down and the silver highly polished. But when the eldest of the three Travis children, a star swimmer named Matt (Kip Pardue), commits suicide, the family's delicate balance is wrecked. Matt's seventeen-year-old brother, Tim (Emile Hirsch, who played the imperious prep-schooler Sedgwick Bell in The Emperor's Club), is cut loose from his emotional moorings. The boys' willful mother, Sandy (a bewildered-looking Sigourney Weaver), reverts to her Baby Boomer youth, smoking dope and making trouble with the neighbors. Good old Dad (a brooding Jeff Daniels) stops shaving, stops going to work and starts taking out his long-submerged resentments on everybody else in the house. Fortunately, middle kid Penny (Michelle Williams) is away at college, but she turns up at home often enough to show off her own brand of depression. All in all, an unhappy bunch -- unrestrainedly so.
By the time we reach the second reel, Harris has stuffed enough drugs, booze, sex, grief and soul-killing family secrets into the groaning skin of his screenplay that it threatens to burst. As if death, adultery and some appalling high school violence weren't enough, he piles on a second suicide, a grotesque Christmas party at the home of a family named Goldstein and a night in jail for poor Mom, who's foolishly tried to score some pot down at the local head shop. Harris's central focus is on the sensitive, distressed teenager Tim (the character closest to the filmmaker in age and, we suspect, in artistic temperament), who says he wants nothing more than for things to return to normal, but all the Travises are so consumed by pain and regret that they soon descend into caricature. Before long, Dad spends all his days sitting on a park bench in the cold, staring into space. Stoned to the gunwales, Mom passes out in the yard. Poor Tim dumps his sympathetic girlfriend (Suzanne Santo), stops playing the piano and, his handsome young face a mask of doom, starts wondering aloud what he's going to do with the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, he also starts taking advice from people whose worldview is even bleaker than his own. As if to justify the movie's title, Harris has one of these hopeless melancholics tell the kid: "One of two things happens when you meet your heroes: They're either assholes, or they're like you."
This doesn't qualify as wisdom on any count -- not even for a twentysomething like Harris -- but it's just the kind of brave, uncooked assertion Imaginary Heroes regularly indulges. More mature domestic-trauma movies like American Beauty and In the Bedroom may wallow in bourgeois gloom, but at least they sound like they've been around the block. This one doesn't, and that includes the unconvincing, tentatively happy ending. But then, how much more are we to expect of an obviously talented young filmmaker whose best work lies ahead of him? For now, it might be best to acknowledge this as an impressive debut and wait for the grownup stuff to come.