You should know a few things before seeing A Home at the End of the World. This is a small film with just a few main players. While it covers the full gamut of emotions, the production is low-key. It's more about character than plot; there are no big twists or slam bang action scenes. The film has flaws, but I loved it. It made me laugh and cry and you very well may do the same if you're open to it.
The cast is extraordinary, by the way. Colin Farrell proves again that he is far more than just another pretty face, holding the story together with a quietly remarkable performance. More about that later. Another favorite, Robin Wright Penn, takes a character trying to invent herself anew and shows the real soul beneath her affectations. Dallas Roberts, whom I've not seen before, impressively rounds out the lead players, while Sissy Spacek provides rock solid support, along with several perfectly cast child actors.
Michael Cunningham wrote the screenplay to the film, which is based on his 1990 novel. He also wrote The Hours and you can do with that what you will.
A Home at the End of the World opens in 1967 Cleveland, where 9-year-old Bobby (Andrew Chalmers) delights in hanging out with his older brother, Carlton (Ryan Donowho, radiating warmth), a laid-back charmer. When Bobby walks in on Carlton and his girlfriend during a spirited sexual liaison, the young lady shrieks, throws on her clothes and climbs out the window. Carlton handles the situation differently, putting his arm around Bobby and assuring him that, "It's just love, man. Nothing but love." Later, Carlton gives Bobby a kid's-size portion of windowpane acid and trips with him, gently guiding his little brother through the experience.
If you're a parent and you found the actions in the last paragraph terrifying, take a second a look from another view. Imagine being nine years old in 1967, the Summer of Love, and you'll understand that Carlton was the best big brother ever.
Sadly, Carlton is killed in a freak accident and his brother's world starts to come undone. Death continues to strike and Bobby (now played by the very-talented Erik Smith) ends up a 16-year-old orphan, moving in with his best friend, Jonathan (Harris Allan, also terrific), his oft-absent father, Ned (Matt Frewer) and dutiful mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek). The boys live happily together, sharing everything, including the occasional sexual experience, with each other. One of the best scenes in the film comes during this period, when Bobby turns Alice on to marijuana while Laura Nyro sings on the stereo and a stunned Jonathan watches his mother in amazement.
Cut to New York City, the East Village to be precise, a few years later, as 24-year-old Bobby (now played by Colin Farrell) comes to stay with Jonathan (now played by Dallas Roberts) at the urging of Alice. Jonathan already shares a walkup with the bright-haired Claire, a divorced woman with some money in her family that she grudgingly taps into periodically. The relationship is platonic because Jonathan is gay. Claire is in love with him nonetheless, and the two plan to have a baby together. Jonathan, who has been in love with Bobby since they were teens, does the one-night-stand thing with a succession of men.
The arrival of Bobby changes the dynamic. Bobby, Jonathan and Claire continue dealing with those changes for the rest of the film, learning more about themselves along the way.
If you're concerned that I've told you too much about the story, try to relax. The joys of the movie come from the dialogue and performances. Knowing the general storyline in advance will simply make it easier to get acclimated.
Rereading the story summary makes me admire the film even more. This could have so easily turned into a big, gloppy soap opera or a pretentious generational statement. But director Michael Mayer, aided musically by Duncan Sheik, keeps the proceedings simple, credible and character-focused. The entire cast is superb - whoever found the boys to play the younger versions of Bobby and Jonathan deserves a medal for their striking accuracy in appearance to the adults - but my thoughts keep drifting to the three leads in particular.
This is one of the first major screen roles for Dallas Roberts and his work as Jonathan fits perfectly with his more experienced co-stars. Among other things, he provides suitable weight to the longing of his character without succumbing to melodrama. Impressive. Robin Wright Penn looks so different than normal here, but she never allows her appearance to carry her. More importantly, she never allows Claire's theatrical flourishes to become overwhelming. She is just great. And Colin Farrell continues to show amazing versatility. His turn as Bobby is mesmerizing. The boy lost so much so early in life. As an adult, he is fiercely loyal, always going the extra steps to please everyone else, but what about his needs? As he constantly cares for the person who needs his care the most, what about his needs? Bobby provides the answer when a member of his extended family congratulates him on an accomplishment by saying, "Is there anything you can't do?" He replies, "Yeah, I can't be alone."
Watch Farrell's face. Sure, he's impossibly good looking and all that, but look closer. Farrell has the face of a boy and a man, a choirboy and a rascal. You see it especially around the eyes, framed by those thick, dark highly expressive eyebrows, and the lips. Colin Farrell has a face made for acting and the young man from Ireland is really good at it.
My only problem with A Home at the End of the World comes late in the movie, where the tone changes in a few scenes from organic to theatrical. Filmmaker Michael Mayer is a veteran theater director, so perhaps it should come as no surprise, but I wish he could had reviewed the footage from the first third of the film before shooting the final section (an impossibility, alas, as the story was shot out of sequence).
Quibbles aside, I want to state, loudly and clearly, that A Home at the End of the World is one of the best films I've seen this year. My favorite part of reviewing movies is getting to jump up and down and wave my arms about a small film that might otherwise escape your attention. Look, folks: I'm jumping and waving now.