"In the Land of Women" walks a prickly path that, with more than a couple wrong turns, could have easily self-destructed in a haze of well-meaning sap. As written and directed by Jonathan Kasdan (son of Lawrence, making his respective filmmaking debut), it dodges this threat by concentrating on character nuances and relationships over showy plot devices and curt climaxes. There are times when the flourishes of his pen get too big for his page the dialogue, for one, imperfectly tends toward speeches and monologues over a shorter, more natural back-and-forth but this surefire sign of a first-timer is miniscule in comparison to all he gets right.
The trailers and television ads for "In the Land of Women" have misleadingly set the film up as something of a love story geared toward teenage girls. It isn't, at least not in the conventional sense. More similar to 2004's "Garden State
" or a really good emo-fueled episode of "Grey's Anatomy" (this is not meant to be a backhanded criticism), the movie is more concerned with dysfunctional lives out of balance and one man's journey toward figuring out who he is than it is about gushy romance. The point of the story never seems to be hinging upon who ends up with who at the end, and that is a refreshing change of pace from the studio norm.
Adam Brody (2006's "Thank You for Smoking
"), best known for his role on the recently canceled television drama "The OC," is a luminous star-in-the-making. He plays 26-year-old Carter Webb, a soft-core porn writer in Los Angeles who is lost and disillusioned by a professional and personal rut. No longer a child but not quite feeling like an adult either, Carter is devastated when his Hollywood actress girlfriend Sofia Bunuel (Elena Anaya) breaks up with him. Desperate for a change, he decides to relocate to the Michigan suburbs to help take care of his crotchety grandmother Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis).
It is here that a mother and daughter living next door actively ingratiate themselves into his life. Stuck in a mechanical marriage and facing her own mortality, the fortyish Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan) sees a sadness in Carter that she attaches herself to. Meanwhile, 16-year-old daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart) is pushed by her parents to invite Carter to the movies, but what is intended to only be an innocent act of kindness and pity becomes something more when Lucy starts to like him. As Carter makes a leap toward writing a novel he has had in his mind for eleven years, he knowingly or not makes a sizable impact on the lives of these two women and their own ailing relationship.
"In the Land of Women" is a touching coming-of-age drama as experienced through the eyes of three people from varying generations. Carter's dreams of being a writer a respectable one that doesn't service gratuitous sex scenes, that is have stalled in the convening years between teenagehood and his twenties, and the loss of the one woman he thought he loved only acts to expose the things he has failed to accomplish. Adam Brody proves that he can carry a film with his complex, low-key turn as Carter. In some ways, his role is reactionary to Sarah and Lucy, but that is appropriate for a young man who has yet to find a place where he belongs in the world.
Sarah attempts to be a beacon of strength when she finds out she has breast cancer and must undergo chemotherapy, but all that she sees while looking death in the face is a life that she hasn't lived to its fullest. With a husband (Clark Gregg) that she knows has been cheating on her, Sarah yearns for the feelings of unadulterated love Carter has felt. Meg Ryan (2003's "In the Cut
"), continuing her segue from romantic ingénues to more mature and complicated parts, is a powerhouse as Sarah. All of the pain, regret and fear that her character is going through isn't merely performed by Ryan, but so candid and natural that she seems to be living it.
And as for Lucy, she is a relatively normal, occasionally brooding, teenage girl who can't help but feel resentment toward her mother even though she knows it is her father who is to blame for his indiscretions. The how's and why's of this disconnected bond between herself and mother Sarah are gradually uncovered as Lucy struggles to find her own identity. Kristen Stewart (2007's "The Messengers
"), a child actor coming of age herself, has grown up into a beautiful and versatile actress in her own right. She is perfectly cast as Lucy, unaffected and true.
In a scene-stealing supporting role that deserves to be up for an Oscar nomination next year, Olympia Dukakis (2006's "3 Needles") is utterly hilarious and heartbreaking as Carter's grandmother, an acerbic, acid-tongued, terminally morbid force to be reckoned with whose main preoccupation is with death. Dukakis and Brody share a vibrant chemistry as grandma and grandson, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Makenzie Vega (2004's "Saw
") also gets some sparkling moments as Sarah's younger daughter Paige, who clings to big sister Lucy and looks up to her.
"In the Land of Women" is astutely made up of a series of small events rather than big ones. Although Sarah has cancer and another key character passes away before the end, the film consistently avoids going the route of melodramatic clichés. Writer-director Jonathan Kasdan treats his characters with the delicacy and wisdom of a man who intimately knows and cares about them through and through. If he tends toward a few too many soul-bearing heart-to-hearts, at least he carries them off with an unsentimental tone, and if the film should elicit tears from the viewer, let it be known that they come from an authentic place rather by way of cloying manipulation. The picture concludes on a nice note that keeps things slightly open-ended, with the characters still in the process of healing. They will be all right. "In the Land of Women" is a poignant study in empathy and, ultimately, rebirth.