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Dustin Putman

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3 Backyards  (2011)
3 Stars
Directed by Eric Mendelsohn.
Cast: Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Rachel Resheff, Embeth Davidtz, Kathryn Erbe, Danai Gurira, Pam La Testa, Sandor Tecsy, Wesley Broulik, Peyton List.
2011 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 14, 2011.
A trio of strangers living in the same Long Island neighborhood are forced to reevaluate the decisions they've made in their lives over a single sleepy autumn day in "3 Backyards," an exquisitely observed slice-of-life with a genuinely transporting feel for its setting. Written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn (1999's "Judy Berlin"), who won the Directing Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, the film is a stirring minimalist portrait of man's war with his or her own nature and the fences that their suburban lifestyles have placed them behind. As creatures big and small, predatory and harmless, surround the main characters and the fields, forests and underbrush present a curious, ever-changing sense of discovery to the paths they take, "3 Backyards" plays like a mischievously foreboding fairy tale. It's an unsuspectingly normal day like any other, but that doesn't make it less potentially dangerous. Anything can happen.

John (Elias Koteas) and his quietly distraught wife (Kathryn Erbe) are at a crossroads in their marriage, but before they can figure out the next step he must leave for a business trip. When his flight is delayed by a day, he suddenly finds himself free of both responsibility and a specific place to be. As he drifts around his own hometown, unseen by his family and everyday acquaintances, he is given a newfound glimpse at a town he comes to find he doesn't know as well as he thought. For 10-year-old Christina (Rachel Resheff), a stolen bracelet intended as her father's birthday gift to her mom causes her to miss her bus. On her walk to school, she happens upon the deviant source responsible for the rash of dogs who have recently gone missing. Finally, living a few houses down from Christina, is stay-at-home wife and mother Peggy (Edie Falco), who excitedly agrees to drive a movie star (Embeth Davidtz) renting the house across the street to the ferry, then is shattered when her expectations of who this woman really is are not met.

Sumptuously dreamlike and compellingly elusive, "3 Backyards" stands as a cinematic testament to how much can be accomplished with few resources and a heap of artistry and ambition. Shot with the RED Digital Camera on a budget of just $300,000, the film is leisurely and attentive to the small details and moments between people, whether it be a loved one or a complete stranger, that oftentimes make the greatest lasting impact. Simultaneously, writer-director Eric Mendelsohn builds a rhythmic, ever-rising urgency to, respectively, the personal journeys of John, Peggy and Christina—three protagonists set upon a reality shimmering with foreboding undercurrents and mysterious passersby. As the wistful sun peaks through the trees, arachnids spin their webs, felines prowl, caterpillars slink beneath the grass, and bees pollinate the flowers, there arises both the feeling of a routine to the world's order and the possibility, at once thrilling and threatening, of unforeseen curves to one's course. With Michael Nicholas' haunting music score of flutes and harps teasing the viewer to look closer and Kasper Anderson's entrancing cinematography painting its Long Island locale with the texture of a fable and the authenticity of knowing the land and being a longtime resident, the picture takes on the aura of a storybook transplanted into the here and now.

The tri-thread of narratives are fairly straightforward, but their purposes are deliciously ambiguous. Mendelsohn does not spell out his messages or present a biased plot, but observes his characters as they are. What one takes from the film is limitless, based on each individual viewer's perspective and what they bring to it. Peggy is beside herself at the thought of escorting a big-time actor to the ferry, imagining how they might bond on the trip through conversation and shared interests. On the drive, Peggy tosses out info she thinks she'll like, as when she discusses the art house movie theater in town and how she likes a mixture of Hollywood productions and smaller indies, but the actress is respectfully curt. She's got something else on her mind and, really, just wants a ride. Peggy expects more from her, and when she doesn't get it turns to gradual passive-aggressiveness. The portrait of fame as seen from both sides—a housewife awe-struck over a movie star, wanting something from her without knowing what, and a famous person going through a tough time who can't seem to escape the outside expectation of always being "on"—rings with resounding truth. It's not that Peggy or the actress is selfish, but that there's a sort of wall that separates who they are and why they can't completely see eye-to-eye. This is no more evident than when the actress has a brief emotional breakdown and Peggy, astonished over what she's just witnessed, responds by marveling at how "real" she is. Even seeing her as a person and not a screen character, there is an inability to disconnect the two. In a film where each performance is indelible, it is Edie Falco's (2006's "Freedomland") transformative work as Peggy, a woman who can't quite grasp or understand the sorrow inside her, that is especially poignant.

When John's plane is canceled and he finds himself with twenty-four hours to kill, he takes the airport up on a complimentary hotel room, then realizes that no one knows he is still in town. Like an invisible man, he calls his wife and young daughter (Peyton List), eavesdropping on them from outside their home while claiming to be on the flight. Back at the hotel, he has an encounter with a friendly-looking woman in a blue dress (Danai Gurira) trying without success to get a job. He sees her again at a nearby diner, watching as a spectator at the rotten way she is treated by the impatient waitress (Pam La Testa) and manager (Sandor Tecsy) when she arrives for an interview. The woman shares a smile with John, enough to break his heart, and he can't believe it when he spots her nonetheless leaving a tip on the table after having been more or less humiliated. What occurs next is achingly moving and wise in the way it is left open-ended. What stirs in the memory afterwards are the exchanges John and this good-hearted woman have, traded with facial expressions and nods without a single spoken word passed between them. Maybe things would have ended differently had he said something to her, or tried to help. He'll never know, but it does serve as the wake-up call he needs to confront his troubled marriage and make some important decisions for the future.

And then there's Christina—or "Chrissy," as the loving note her mom left in her lunchbox reads—who is plagued with guilt over trying on her jewelry and then not being able to get it off her wrist before she left her house. This feeling of unease only escalates when she realizes she lost the bracelet somewhere along her trek to school and may have to return to the dognapper's—and very possibly pedophile's—yard as she retraces her steps. Looking out during recess over her deceptively idyllic hometown from behind the fence set up around the school grounds, she is at once safe from outside harm and quite aware that no one will be watching out for her during her afternoon walk home. What does occur after school—indeed, what she does in her pursuit of getting back the bracelet—is not at all what is expected, a turn of the screws that suggests Christina is a little wiser and more cunning than we, as viewers, have taken her for. It's safe to say she won't again take what doesn't belong to her.

A tonal poem about the desires, mistakes, serendipitous encounters, and ultimate disappointments that a single day can have in store for any one of us, "3 Backyards" is a motion picture small of means, yet incalculably immense in its exploration of nothing less than the human condition. It stirs and marinates in the mind long after it has ended, growing almost more vivid by memory with the passage of time and recollection. In addition to his mesmerizing eye for setting and symbolism, director Eric Mendelsohn shows that the value of imagery and the impact of simple looks and silences over pages upon pages of non-stop dialogue and bombast is sometimes a vital, invaluable asset. There could be the argument made that the amount of lens flares used might have been lessened, but their contribution in all the more elevating the film's one-of-a-kind illusory qualities should not be discounted. Peggy, John and Christina wake up in their own beds and will go to sleep in them, too, but what they experience in between resembles a vision through the looking glass. It's a life that somehow seems both altered and exactly the same, unforgiving yet miraculous. They recognize it because it's their own.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman