Movie Review: Ithaca (2016)


Filmgoers who enjoyed their trip to Brooklyn last winter should be sure to seek out actress turned filmmaker Meg Ryan's directorial debut Ithaca this fall.

Set in the summer of '42, this lovingly crafted coming-of-age odyssey based on William Saroyan’s semi-autobiographical, semi-Homeric film treatment turned screenplay turned classic novel The Human Comedy is centered on fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter).

With a smile that was described by Saroyan in his novel as saying "yes to all things" (in a line Ithaca's production designer pays homage to as the title of a faux retro movie in the background of a beautifully bittersweet scene), Homer likewise soaks up everything around him.

But with his older brother (Jack Quaid) off to war and his father (Tom Hanks) recently deceased, Homer takes it upon himself to help his beloved mother (Ryan) make ends meet as the new man of the house.

Promising that he can pedal fast enough to beat Western Union, Homer convinces Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) to give him a job as a bike messenger for the town's local Postal Telegraph office.

Occasionally tasked with sobering up Sam Shepard's world-weary telegrapher William Grogan with an express delivery of a cold cup of water across the face followed by a hot cup of coffee from across the street, Homer soon discovers the reason for Grogan's stress.

Learning that a majority of the telegrams he carries come from the Secretary of War with dire news, Homer quickly becomes aware of the world in which he'd been a child while realizing just how much of an impact his job can have on someone's life.

Revealing the power of the written word both in bringing people closer together as well as tearing them apart, Homer's unease about his new familial role and messenger position is pushed aside by the series of letters he receives from his brother that we hear Quaid read over the course of the movie.

A fittingly age-old storytelling device that not only harks back to the films of the World War II era but also cleverly reinforces the film's Homeric themes, Band of Brothers scripter Erik Jendresen bridges together what could've been an overly episodic narrative by way of Quaid's moving voice-over, thus enhancing Ithaca's refreshingly understated charm.

Seemingly inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of its old-fashioned foray into adolescent centric coming-of-age storytelling, at less than ninety minutes, Ithaca nonetheless settles a bit too easily for the familiar taste of a comfort food-like recipe.

Fortunately however, by drawing heavily on her background as a versatile performer, Ryan inspires strong turns from her affable cast both newcomers and veterans alike.

From the fearless nature of Homer's four-year-old brother Ulysses (played by scene-stealer Spencer Howell) to MVP character actor Hamish Linklater as Homer's hurdle-jumping boss Spangler who's much deeper than he seems, the ensemble driven effort is bursting with three dimensional characterization.

Though its female characters feel a bit one note – most likely due to the film's limited point-of-view which focuses heavily on the evolution of our young main character on his path to adulthood – with Ryan at the helm, it does feel like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into an often overlooked perspective in order to help Ithaca push past its formulaic shortcomings.

Yet similar to her Ithaca (blink-and-you-missed-it) co-star and executive producer Tom Hanks' own '60s set directorial debut That Thing You Do, Ryan's first foray into filmmaking is steeped in period authenticity in terms of storytelling, style, and spirit.

Alternating between the sun-drenched innocence that opens the film and the uncertainty of dusk which closes it, Ithaca's largely two tone color scheme from Gosford Park cinematographer Andrew Dunn calls to mind the predominantly black-and-white lensing of early 1940s, WWII motion picture photography.

Filling Ithaca with unexpected flourishes including a surprisingly subtle yet effective score from rocker John Mellencamp, Ryan keeps viewers from focusing on her otherwise beautifully rendered Saroyan adaptation's structural predictability.

A humanistic, well-acted ode to those that say yes to all things, in this World War II battle of hearts and minds being waged by a young boy on the home front, Meg Ryan turns a timeless tale into a timelier than ever directorial debut.

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