Conceptually, "At Middleton" should work beautifully as a low-key, heartfelt character piece, the kind in the vein of 1991's "Dogfight
" and 1995's "Before Sunrise" where strangers meet, connect in surprising ways, and end up spending an unforgettable day together. Under the right circumstances, with just the right script, this romantic subgenre can transcend in very observant, emphatic, breathtakingly humane ways. When all of the small but crucial details are either wrong or entirely neglected, however, it can dash the would-be intoxicating spell and throw the whole project off course. Such is the case with the directorial debut of Adam Rodgers (co-writing the screenplay with Glenn German), who gets layered performances from his cast and then lets them down. Pretty much from the start, "At Middleton" steps wrong enough to be turned off by characters with whom the viewer is meant to gradually fall in love. Instead, many audience members will be too busy thinking of how they would like to slap some sense into these irresponsible, self-involved onscreen protagonists.
At the idyllic, small-town Middleton College, cardiac surgeon George (Andy Garcia) and furniture store owner Edith (Vera Farmiga) have convened with their respective kids, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) and Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), for a day-long campus tour for prospective students. Almost immediately, the parents wander away from the group, he to take a work-related phone call and she to grab a coffee. Both married and initially a little contentious, George and Edith nonetheless sense an unexpected spark. Deciding to leave their kids on their own for the day, these two grown-ups revert to the behavior of 18-year-olds, living out a university experience over an eventful few hours that leave them questioning, "What if?" Meanwhile, Conrad, who has little interest in Middleton, and Audrey, who is determined to meet her idol, premier linguistics professor Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt), are led to reassess their plans for the future.
There are captivating and sometimes poignant individual moments in "At Middleton"one of them set during a drama class where George and Edith participate in an acting exercise, another where Audrey has a deflating meeting with Dr. Emerson that goes nothing like she anticipatedbut these copacetic flashes only serve to reveal how great the film might have been with a few nips, tucks and rewrites. Any parents who would accompany their teen children to a college campus and then selfishly abandon them for the day without so much as cell phone contact (save for one time early on where Edith blatantly lies to Audrey about her whereabouts) is automatically distasteful. Edith and George, penned as too cute by a half as they cavort around, mocking other people they come across, playing piano duets, and walking on crutches for the fun of it, are more frustrating than irresistible. They obnoxiously talk loudly before they skip out on the tour, they steal bicycles on the campus quad ("I think I lost a testicle!" George exclaims after accidentally riding down steps), they get high in a dorm room with a couple students, and they hide from their kids in the cafeteria during lunch so they don't have to deal with them. The intention of director Adam Rodgers is to reverse the typical adult-child roles and see how it shakes out, but this doesn't stop their behavior from being close to appalling.
If half the battle in mounting a love story is the chemistry between the two leads, then Rodgers has gotten lucky with Andy Garcia (2007's "Ocean's Thirteen
") and Vera Farmiga (2013's "The Conjuring
"). Usually seen in heavy dramatic parts where smiling is a hot commodity, Garcia and Farmiga not only extend their lips upwards but also laugh boisterously, dance around while under the influence, andthis is where it goes too farfrolic, slow-motion-style, in a water fountain. If George and Edith weren't so astoundingly negligent, they'd be adorable. As for their flirtation with having an affair, there is not enough reason given for why they are unhappy in their lives and marriages to rationalize their reckless behavior, no matter how much pathos they give their characters. Newcomer Spencer Lofranco and Taissa Farmiga (2013's "The Bling Ring
") carry their scenes with poise and charisma as Conrad and Audrey, who do not have all the answers, but appear to be more mature and put-together than their parents. They, too, fall victim to tropes in the writing"I know you better than you know yourself," Audrey tells Conrad at one point, but couldn't possiblyyet come out the other side as attractive, enticingly layered performers. One faintly awkward aside: Vera and Taissa Farmiga are sisters playing mother and daughter. They look alike, certainly, but that doesn't make this knowledge of their real-life relationship any less strange.
"At Middleton" is pleasant but irksome to a fault. Its tone and rhythm is comfortable, even natural, and director Adam Rodgers seems to have something inherently touching to say about a parent letting go of a child who is growing up and the unforeseen curveballs that occur when life happens. Moreover, cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh's lush, bucolic lensing in and around Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington (standing in for the fictional Middleton) is enough to make a person far removed from college want to pay the school a visit. A scene where George and Edith stumble into a projection booth showing 1964's French musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is also a nice touch. Unfortunately, the plot contrivances and disagreeable character directives finally become difficult to overlook. George and Edith's slighting of their son and daughter is bad enough, but their complete disinterest in what happened to them throughout the day when they meet back up is the final insult. George and Edith are unapologetic and too self-absorbed to show Conrad and Audrey a moment of concern, and that truly sucks. Why should the viewer care about them when they don't seem to care about anyone but themselves?