Film Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

The actors work overtime to make this would-be sensitive study of troubled youth work, but are undone by the windy triteness of the script.
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Suicidally inclined James (Toby Regbo) is 17 and profoundly alienated from the world around him, the result of divorced parents, school bullying and a profound disbelief in the possibility of love. His mother, neurotic New Age gallerist Marjorie (Marcia Gay Harden), has just weathered another disastrously failed marriage with a compulsive gambler (Stephen Lang), while his dad, Paul (Peter Gallagher), is more interested in getting a facelift and younger girls than truly parenting. Older sister Gillian (Deborah Ann Woll) is involved with her much older professor, and the only one James can relate to is his sympathetic grandmother, Nanette (Ellen Burstyn). Will he ever break out of his shell and truly engage?

Roberto Faenza co-wrote and directed this coming-of-age saga (based on a novel by Peter Cameron), which starts off with a diverting puckishness but eventually dissolves into predictable bathos. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is nothing we haven’t seen dozens of times before, but its initially engaging quality stems from a cast doing their damnedest, and sometimes succeeding, in instilling some quirky life into the less-than-fresh material.

They are, however, ultimately defeated by the often overwritten predictability of Faenza’s plot resolution and increasingly uncertain tone. James, for instance, is secretly in love with gallery employee John (Gilbert Owuor) but blows it when he pretends to be his online hookup. They eventually make up in a scene at the beach, wherein a shirtless John disconcertingly poses away like an Abercrombie model. This brief moment of joy for is then dispelled by the death of the always supportively saintly Nanette, which plays like some weird, incestuous version of Harold and Maude. Many heavy-handed, murky references are made to a Washington D.C. incident which had a traumatically negative effect on James, but when Faenza finally stages the big reveal, it seems much ado about nothing and may even make harder-hearted viewers just want to say, “Chill out, James, and man up already!”

Exquisitely featured Regbo is all quivering sensitivity in a way to make the young James Dean seem positively thuggish, but he’s affecting enough under the squishy circumstances. Harden enjoys herself, doing a broad cartoon of the kind of mom who needs parenting more than her kids, while Gallagher gets his easy laughs doing the same smarmy thing he’s been plying for years. Burstyn shows us nothing new as Nanette. But Lang gives the film’s freshest, funniest performance as the kind of loser all too many lonely woman of a certain age cluelessly hook up with, much to their sorrow.