Dir: Mark Pellington. US. 2008. 100mins
The skeptical notion that ‘believing is seeing’ is put to rest in Henry Poole Is Here, a new twist on magic realism directed by Mark Pellington. Backyard miracles transform the life of a man who retreats from the world into a dull California suburb after a grim medical prognosis.
The story of redemption in Henry Poole, while a Luke Wilson vehicle, may not be the kind of film that the actor’s young male fans will run to see. It may also confuse audiences as a religious-themed tale that is also a romance. As with other Sundance films, in which actors like Wilson (and an ensemble from television shows) experiment in roles beyond the types they tend to play, it would be an act of faith to see this suburban Green Mile as anything but an independent novelty. Foreign interest is likely to be minimal.
The film unfolds in a bland lower middle-class suburb where Poole, numb from discouraging news from his doctor, buys an ordinary house near the home in La Mirada, California, where he grew up. Think of the mood of American Beauty, only the houses are a lot cheaper. Quietly detached and visibly vulnerable, he’s a sitting duck for female neighbours who want to help him - an attentive realtor Meg (Hines), a motherly gossip Esperanza (Barraza) and a gentle siren of a single mother Dawn (Mitchell), caring for a troubled young daughter Millie (Lily).
The neighbourhood arises from its torpor when Esperanza (Hope in Spanish) spies the outline of a face on a newly finished wall of Poole’s house that she believes is a sign from God. She summons a local priest (Lopez) and eventually a devout crowd keeps a vigil. While the devotion infuriates Poole as he sifts through memories and awaits death, he develops a bond with mute young Millie who hasn’t spoken since her father abandoned the family. Then, miraculously, a near-blind salesgirl at the supermarket regains her sight. After attacking the miraculous wall in a fury, Poole retreats into himself once again, but romance with Dawn saves the day, just as a revised diagnosis gives him his life back. With the right news from the doctor, even the non-believer can believe in love.
Mark Pellington’s film, a detour from his previous Mothman Prophecies, Arlington Road and Going All The Way, has a strong autobiographical side (his wife died young several years ago and he has a young child) and his story of retreat and redemption, while deeply personal, may mean more to Pellington than to the audience. The miraculous elements in Albert Torres’s script that offer hope also strain credulity.
The character represents a new kind of role for Wilson, who is known and suited for comic parts in stories (Blonde Ambition, Blades Of Glory) that don’t demand much thought. Here Wilson is on camera for almost the entire film, sustaining a slow deliberate pace that gets uncomfortably earnest between bursts of comic relief from Barraza and Lopez. Yet Wilson is playing from the heart, and his promising performance shows strengths that are sure to be tapped in future roles. Also tender without too much sentimentality is Mitchell, shot radiantly by Eric Schmidt, in what otherwise tends to look like mortuary light in eerie and dreary interiors crafted by production designer Richard Hoover.
The film is a faith-based initiative whose happy ending defies all the odds and all the evidence. Ultimately, it is like religion - it’s a much better experience when you believe in it.
Overture Films (US)
Lakeshore Entertainment (US)
Camelot Pictures (US)
(1) 310 867 8052
Lisa Zeno Churgin