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Dustin Putman

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Lifelines  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Rob Margolies.
Cast: Jane Adams, Josh Pais, Robbie Sublett, Dreama Walker, Jacob Kogan, Joe Morton, Ben Levin, Susan Molloy, Edloe Blackwell, Andre Ward, Sandra Elizabeth Rodriguez.
2009 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong language and drug use involving teens).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 16, 2008.
A major new force to the indie cinema world has arrived in the form of 25-year-old first-time writer-director-producer Rob Margolies. Shot over eleven days on a budget of just $250,000, "Lifelines" is not only better than the vast majority of studio pictures that get released each year, but it is also so assuredly shot, astutely written and powerfully performed that it more than deserves to snatch up critical acclaim and a comfy distribution deal once the film festival rounds have been made.

Set over an eventful Saturday in the lives of the New Jersey-residing Bernstein family—mother Nancy (Jane Adams), father Ira (Josh Pais), 18-year-old son Michael (Robbie Sublett), 16-year-old daughter Meghan (Dreama Walker) and 12-year-old son Spencer (Jacob Kogan)—"Lifelines" opens in a familiar fashion that brings to mind the suburban dystopia portrayed in 1999's "American Beauty," 2003's "The Safety of Objects," and any number of Todd Solondz efforts. Playing to the tune of its own drummer, however, the picture soon defies initial expectations and carves out a surprisingly fresh place for itself within the genre.

To say that the Bernsteins are dysfunctional would be an understatement; overachiever Michael struggles with a stutter, hostile Meghan freely calls her mother a bitch at the breakfast table, the ADD-afflicted Spencer refuses to behave, Ira acts as an unsuccessful mediator, and teacher Nancy is perplexed why she can easily handle a class of twenty-six kindergartners but has no way of getting through to her own children. Loading themselves into the SUV, the Bernsteins head to the office of family therapist Dr. Livingston (Joe Morton). When Ira drops a figurative bomb on the kids—that he is gay, and he and Nancy are separating—it sets the stage for a draining day in which long-hidden truths are grappled with and a heavy dose of self-reflection leads them all to question whether it's too late to put the pieces of their broken relationships back together.

"Lifelines" is a resoundingly affecting and emotionally cathartic family drama, one that viewers will think they have figured out by the twenty-minute mark, but won't. An initial slight feeling of stiltedness in the interplay between the characters turns out to have a distinct purpose—simply put, their brimming hostility against one another has left them unable to connect in innately human ways—and what follows thereafter is a series of eye-opening moments and unpredictably rattling revelations that pull this increasingly recognizable family's many problems into focus.

Stark and authentically realized, but also peppered with spurts of painfully funny dark comedy, the film is almost too intimate in the way writer-director Rob Margolies portrays this family's interactions, their underlying and rarely acted-upon love for one another, and all of the little mundane details that make them more than just screenplay constructs. Indeed, what is so ultimately amazing is how the Bersteins begin as insufferable louts you wouldn't want to spend two minutes with, only for their barriers to gradually topple over, revealing wounded people who are deeply sympathetic and real.

Margolies does an especially superb job of understanding that not everything needs to be spelled out, and trusts his audiences to fill in the blanks between the characters' meaningful inferences and words unspoken. A tense family dinner at an upscale restaurant, in all of its nuances, rings with a genuineness rarely caught on film, as does a quiet scene early on in which Ira speaks to his children and tries to make them understand how valuable (and valued) their lives are to him. Likewise, a mother-daughter confrontation in the third act bristles with heartbreaking immediacy, and leads toward a lovely moment near the end that is tough yet bittersweet, and certainly well-earned.

The cast is superlative across the board. The underrated Jane Adams (2008's "The Wackness"), usually stuck in colorful but thankless supporting roles, finally has received a meaty lead role to rival the one she had in 1998's "Happiness." Adams relishes the chance to play someone as multifaceted as Nancy, a conflicted and confused woman whose marriage is crumbling and whose earnest attempts at parenting are not enough to have the sort of relationships with her children that she had hoped for. As husband Ira, Josh Pais (2007's "Year of the Dog") treats his part with an internal contemplation that shines through whenever he tries to make uncomfortable situations better. Ira's own admittance that he is gay following twenty-four years of marriage is characterized by a vulnerable strength that avoids any maudlin notes.

As kids Michael, Meghan and Spencer, each one struggling with their own feelings of guilt and bitterness, newcomer Robbie Sublett, Dreama Walker (2008's "Sex and the City") and Jacob Kogan (2007's "Joshua") are naturalistic and exceptionally penetrating. They understand their characters through and through. And, as Dr. Livingston, Joe Morton (2007's "American Gangster") is his own beacon of understanding and patience. A late-in-the-proceedings disclosure involving Dr. Livingston is the one element that threatens contrivance, but it somehow works, too, in no small part due to Morton's poignantly subtle turn.

Thoughtful as well as impacting, "Lifelines" lingers and stirs in the memory long after the end credits have rolled. The final scenes, extremely satisfying, bring a certain hope to the Bernsteins' own lives and futures without being neat and tidy. By this point, we care intensely about what happens to them, and hope that they'll be able to come out the other side as human beings changed for the better. "Lifelines" may be small in budget, but its scope in bravely and accurately depicting the ins and outs of a family in immediate crisis is incalculably huge.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman