Starring Alex Neustaedter, Hamish Linklater, Sam Shepard, Meg Ryan, Jack Quaid, Tom Hanks
In many ways actors turned directors have both an unfair advantage in making their first film, but also more scrutiny. Meg Ryan was the most popular actress of the 90’s, especially her film with Tom Hanks, who she has recruited for a cameo in this directorial debut. Ithaca is a passion project for Ryan; not only does her son Jack Quaid co-star, but she also admits the novel it’s based on helped her through the divorce with Dennis Quaid. Ithaca is Ryan’s first on screen appearance since the forgotten 2009 film Serious Moonlight. Like many first time directors, she has surrounded herself by quality filmmakers on screen and off, but there is a narrative disconnect here that encourages the mind to wander.
Homer (Neustaedter) is the middle son and current man of the house, while his older brother Marcus (Quaid) off in the war. Instead of staying home to help his widowed mother (Ryan) take care of his little brother Ulysses (Spencer Howell), Homer gets a job in town running telegrams. Willie Grogan (Shepard) admits Homer being 14 is a bit too young for the job, but then works it out that he is too old to be doing his, so it evens out. His first telegram delivery reveals that the anxious boy is unprepared for the manhood he is stepping into. Most of the letters are from the government announcing the passing of a family member. “It’s only that you are becoming aware of a world in which you have been a child,” his mother says after his first day on the job.
Like many first time directors, Ryan has surrounded herself by quality filmmakers on screen and off, but there is a narrative disconnect here that encourages the mind to wander.
Neustaedter resembles a young Leo DiCaprio, and he carries the film mostly on his own despite little to no mainstream experience. Ryan doesn’t indulge in much dialogue for her role, but clearly understands her presence on screen is valuable to whoever might be interested in seeing this little film. British cinematographer Andrew Dunn (worked with Ryan on the 90’s comedy Addicted to Love) does an excellent job at not only setting the film in rural Virginia, but also cultivates memorable images that stick with the viewer: Vintage locomotives traveling through the woods, late night laundry on the line. This is John Mellencamp’s sophomore effort as a musical composer, it too adds a certain hazy and vintage feel to the images.
We meet many of the ensemble cast of characters rather quickly in the film’s opening moments. I found myself a bit overwhelmed with who is who, whose dead, whose is where. Ithaca is so traditional and simple in its storytelling, that the script over emphasizes the elder brother’s importance to the family, dooming him in the first act. The theme that runs through the film is certainly one of acceptance. Accepting life’s greatness and ultimate disappointment. Ryan’s dramatic work was rarely as popular, profitable or impressive as her lighter fare. I do hope she continues to work behind the camera. Who better to invent original romantic comedies than their former queen. Perhaps she takes up where her former director Nora Ephron left off.
Ryan’s directorial debut might be cathartic for pain she has endured the last decade but the audience is on the outside.