Dir. John Stockwell. USA. 2008. 95 min.
Previous attempts to elevate Anton Yelchin’s rising star in the mould of a poor-little-rich boy (Charlie Bartlett) or rich-little-poor boy (Fierce People) have come a cropper. In John Stockwell’s surprisingly satisfying romantic dramedyMiddle of Nowhere, the wiry-headed actor inhabits another brainy-rebel part that craftily melds both demographics. Aided by a percolating script and simpatico chemistry with co-star Eva Amurri, Yelchin has found the breakout spotlight he deserves.
Despite the participation of the redoubtable Sarandon and Crazy/Beautiful director Stockwell, who elicits his best ensemble work here, Middle of Nowhere crept into town on cat’s paws. In a festival not wanting for big-buzz, fat-budget rom-coms about teens and twentysomethings acting out, this intelligent, next-generation Brat Pack flick may emerge as a sleeper hit with tiger legs.
Yelchin and Amurri play two teens from opposite sides of the tracks who connect during a period of personal crises. Yelchin’s Dorian Spitz is a cosseted, 16-year-old heir to an enbalming-fluid fortune who is punished for his iconoclastic behaviour by being banished to his uncle’s for a summer and made to work a job at a water park. There, he meets co-worker Grace Berry (Amurri), an economically bereft 17-year-old who sees her med-school dreams going up in smoke amid a $37,000 debt her mother Rhonda (Sarandon) has amassed to finance modelling school for her kid sister, Taylor Elizabeth (Holland).
Her integrity caving to financial realities, Grace reluctantly agrees to go in with Dorian on a drug-selling operation and split the profits fifty-fifty. It is not long before the elfin Dorian puts the moves on his earnest business partner. Grace responds with characteristic caution: while she enjoys Dorian and empathizes with his checkered background (they both have dark skeletons rattling about their family closets), she has her eyes set on Ben Pretzler (Chatwin), a pretty-faced charm boy from the water park.
Yelchin does the antic-disposition thing with the smooth expertise of a young Hamlet-in-training and Dorian represents his loosest work to date. Yelchin’s kinetic energy provides the perfect yin for Amurri’s buttoned-down yang, as exemplified by a lovely, awkward mating dance sequence set in a laundry mat. Moon-faced and pouty, Amurri is an improbable leading lady. Her off-center looks make her all the more credible, however, as a scholar-manque compelled to stand in the shadow of both her sister and her boyfriend’s beauty. As the smoothly seductive Ben, Chatwin builds steam after a marble-mouthed party scene in which his dialogue is barely audible.
The most appealing ensemble work is generated between the Berry-family women. Sarandon and Amurri work up a potent mother-daughter fury in the film’s third act, while Amurri and the sumptuous-looking Holland share a conspiratorial rapport that is believable and funny. But good as he is with actors, Stockwell hasn’t quite shaken the surfer-dude auteur that gave us Blue Crush and Into the Blue.
Gary Michael Walters