Tragedy strikes the Travis family one morning when their eldest son Matt (Kip Purdue), a championship swimmer, kills himself. Ben (Jeff Daniels) had Olympic-sized plans for his boy and is sent into one of those unshaven alone phases. Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) has always had a more open relationship with their youngest, Tim (Emile Hirsch), whose piano skills have been on the back burner. Their only daughter, Penny (Michelle Williams) visits from college at the turn of every holiday or occasional suicide.
Ben makes little gestures to ingratiate himself into Tim’s life, but he’s mostly out-of-touch and can never conceal that Matt was his favorite. Mom is a little more encouraging even if she’s infrequently distracted by her feud with the next-door neighbor (Deirdre O’Connell) whose own son (Ryan Donowho) is hardly the best influence on Tim.
Pain has been lingering in the Travis household for years. Only now has it begun to seep out of their pores. Each of them initiate their own pharmaceutical haze, not of the addiction sort, but the daily prescriptions that are often substituted for personal therapy – the sad truth of how doctors become dealers instead of us dealing with ourselves. Dad has a collection of pills. Mom humorously regresses to her younger days of pot. Actual physical pain inhabits Tim, thanks to an accident and the unexplained dark bruises that encompass his body.
Writer/director Dan Harris keeps many of the catalysts for everyone’s behavior buried in the past, keeping us on the path of discovery only to manifest themselves in the later stages. Counting the tragedies, misfortunes and other unfortunates that befall these characters may drive those just discovering cynicism to put on the brakes. It doesn’t go for easy tears, however, nor for overly melodramatic assemblies. Even when Daniels appears to get a second chance at nailing his Terms of Endearment bedside demeanor, Harris sidesteps by not going for the obvious.
Weaver is terrific; getting a chance to actually act rather than stare and look confused in M. Night Shyamalan’s Village atrocity. Part cynical hipster and part matriarch, Sandy is unsure of how to mold her family into a cohesive one, but Weaver makes her vulnerable when she least expects, but strong.
Daniels is poised with the difficult role of trying to push up the sleeve that wears his pain, but unable to escape that there’s just too much fabric. Hirsch continues to do solid work in the various stages of the troubled youth; from arrogant rich-kid (The Emperor’s Club) to insecure over-achiever (The Girl Next Door). These three actors get rich one-on-one scenes to mix-up with one another and they are our guides through some of the film’s rougher passages.
This film most definitely had the potential to be yet another after school special, but it did more than that by touching on homosexual issues in a truly unique way, almost teasing its gay viewers. Quite the turn on, if you’re into that sort of thing. Also, the complex weaving of uniquely human problems puts this film more on a par with American Beauty than one of those Lifetime flicks, which also serve their purpose, don’t get me wrong.
Imaginary Heroes, surprisingly, is a film not to be missed. You can buy or rent this film by stopping in Outloud! Books and Gifts on Church Street, other movie retailers or online.