Film Review: The House of Tomorrow

This precious little plea for nonconformist understanding combines whimsical characterizations with terminal illness, neither of which is very appealing to start with. Together, they’re a recipe for a particularly nagging disinterest.
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The true star of The House of Tomorrow is the visionary polymath Buckminster Fuller, whose utopian philosophy and precepts for healthy living are what drives the film’s hero, orphan Sebastian (Asa Butterfield), whose grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) was once one of Fuller’s most fervent disciples. Sebastian is a complete innocent about the real world, for his “Nana” has raised him in a Fuller-prescribed geodesic dome—also a study center and shrine to the great man—completely cut off from reality. Sebastian is both her chief disciple and her assistant in her mission to bring her idol’s message to a world ever more hostile to its ideals.

He gets thrown into contact with the outside world when siblings Meredith (Maude Apatow) and Jared (Alex Wolff), members of a church group led by their single father Alan (Nick Offerman, his sturdy charm wasted here), come to visit the dome. She’s a firecracker with a contentious relationship with her brother, who has a heart condition that ever threatens to be fatal. Despite that, Jared yearns to start a ‘70s-style punk band. Though he and Sebastian couldn’t be more diferent, they start off a fast friendship, with Sebastian learning about the grittier aspects of life from his new friend and picking up a guitar, besides. Neither Nana nor Alan are pleased with the situation, he because he fears exertion could exacerbate his son’s illness, she because her faithful charge seems at last to be sprouting wings to fly away. (One can scarcely blame poor Seb. Nana, culinary fascist that she is, is appalled by her grandson’s newfound taste for grilled cheese and wants to serve him quinoa, instead.)

Writer/director Peter Livolsi, adapting a novel by Peter Bognanni, unfortunately fully embraces the exhausting, utter quirkiness of a tale in which everyone is something of a wackadoodle misfit.  The entire project has a retro feel to it, harking as it does back to the glory days of ‘60s counterculture.

The whole thing is an ornately contrived conglomeration none-too-fresh dramatic clichés and inconsistencies, starting with that bound-for-an-early-grave Jared.  A huge blow-up finally happens between Nana and Sebastian over that aforementioned sandwich, but in their very next scene together it’s as if nothing had happened. And you have to wonder how Sebastian, despite his ability to use the Internet like any average teen, could be so very innocent and uninformed. Apart from Apatow, who has one strong scene in which she touchingly explains her noxious behavior (which comes out of love for her dying bro, duh), the only really interesting acting here comes from Wolff, who gives a charismatic portrayal of a born rebel that happily underplays the bathos.   Sadly, Wolff is rather undone by the lame song Livolsi gives him and the ever-wide-eyed (and boring) Butterfield to play at the climactic big concert in which this delicate rock ‘n roll flower had been expressly forbidden to take part.

It’s great that Ellen Burstyn--who, in The Last Picture Show, gave one of the most luminously ingratiating performances ever--still gets juicy parts like this. But one wishes this one had been better. We’ve seen her essay such determinedly non-conformist, often wrong-headed women as Nana before, to far better effect thanks to superior writing and character development. She executive-produced this project, which, interestingly enough, includes actual archival footage of her with Buckminster Fuller, whom she knew personally.

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