THE TALENT GIVEN USNR
With this first feature, Andrew Wagner has done a commendable job delivering a slice of the neurotic lives of an Upper West Side Jewish family-depicted by his own relatives-that takes off cross-country to reconnect with a slightly estranged, screenwriter son. Initially self-distributed, the film got some nice early reviews that brought Vitagraph Films on as distributor. The Talent Given Us earlier picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the CineVegas Film Festival and became an official selection at Sundance 2005. But let the commercial audience beware.
The Talent Given Us most engages on a level that Wagner may not have intended. Because he uses his actual family-mom, dad, two sisters and himself-as his protagonists, we do wonder when real family tsuris is on view.
And this family has plenty. In fact, their baggage on this cross-country jaunt isn't just of the canvas variety. Although in her 70s, matriarch Judy (Judy Wagner) is sexually frustrated, as husband Allen (Allen Wagner) is not of a mind or sufficient health to satisfy her. She is also artistically frustrated, believing that her years training as an actor and dancer have come to naught. And her neurotic daughters Maggie (Maggie Wagner) and especially Emily (Emily Wagner) fault her performance as a mother.
Allen is plagued by poor mobility and a chronic roving eye, to the extent that he has cheated on Judy in the past and even wanders a tad during their road trip. Judy's resentment runs so deep, she wants out of their long marriage.
Because the film conveniently absents such staples as the cell phone and e-mail, son Andrew (Andrew Wagner), struggling as a screenwriter in L.A., is unreachable. Instantly, a road trip west materializes: Allen shows up with a brand-new van, Judy insists he drive it as she is conveniently resistant to jet travel, and Maggie and Emily conveniently have time off from their chores in the margins of the entertainment industry to come along.
The first stop takes them east to Long Island and their summer house in Atlantic Beach, which becomes one of the film's first opportunities for set-up and backstory. Judy disses the not so swanky house, a symbol of her overall impatience with her life. The van then wends its way west to places like Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico and Las Vegas, hitting fast-food joints, truck stops and new-money family friends.
Wagner manages to keep it pretty real and often interesting. His cinematography is terrific, with visuals crisp and well-composed, and Terri Breed's editing nicely pushes things along, all considered. Some sequences do drag: The self-indulgent Las Vegas stopover is more for cast and crew than for audiences, and the near-final L.A. sequence crawls like a freeway traffic jam.
But Wagner's family is gifted and they pour their hearts into their performances. Father Allen, forever chewing on a straw, is obviously the reluctant debutant, but son Andrew, with about a hundred hours of footage to draw upon, gets from pop a credible if grumpy performance.
Wagner's real coup is to pull the whole thing off adequately and as cheaply as he did. The film's problem is that the ranting, whining, kvetching, self-involved family begins to outstay its welcome long before L.A., so that time spent with them can feel like entrapment at a raucous bar mitzvah reception. And the film's score, an electronic keyboard or guitar riff here and there, is more filler than inspired.
Filled with references to drugs, therapies, rituals and the doubts and neuroses of pampered people desperate to heal, The Talent Given Us is also proof that L.A.-based filmmakers, no matter their roots or degree of talent and expertise, have a narrative, stylistic or aesthetic disconnect when it comes to indie films. Wagner doesn't throw light on this mystery; he's just another manifestation of it.