Imaginary Heroes

Imaginary Heroes


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Matt Travis (Kip Pardue) is a gifted swimmer whose family has urged him to become the best, but Matt can't stand the strain. After his brother Tim finds him in his room with his brains blown out, the family begins to fall apart. Father Ben withdraws from life, refusing to make emotional contact with anybody. Mother Sandy tries to recapture her carefree youth. Tim just tries to get by, struggling with the day-to-day difficulties of adolescence and nursing a painful secret.

Writer/director Dan Harris' ambitious debut movie is all about secrets and the damage they can do, along with grudges and a general unwillingness to communicate. With Tim at its centre, the film focuses on the experience of modern youth, but there's plenty here for viewers of all ages.

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As might be expected with a first script covering such a complex and expansive subject, Imaginary Heroes is a bit hit and miss. Central to the family's difficulties is the brooding of the self-repressed father, yet there's little to encourage the viewer to sympathise with him, little to suggest that it's really worth the others' while to try and reclaim him. Though Jeff Daniels turns in a solid and believable performance, it lacks the edge which he's brought to similar roles, and his big emotional scene at the end doesn't seem sufficient to justify all that has gone before.

This is, naturally, a story about characters beset by grief, but we still need to be able to care about them in order to feel involved. Sigourney Weaver's character is much stronger but displays inconsistencies which the script isn't quite tight enough to draw together. Her meandering journey sometimes fails to engage. Particularly problematic are scenes of cannabis use, which follow familiar film cliches, but don't seem realistic. By contrast, the scene in which Tim takes ecstasy at a party is very well handled and shows off what Harris can do as a director.

Though this is a film about people with little sense of direction, it is badly in need of a stronger sense of direction itself. Splitting into four seasonal segments helps, but it still struggles with pacing. In part, this is probably due to its low budget, with the impossibility of re-shoots leading to some scenes being put together from leftover bits in the editing room. Sometimes one gets the impression that earlier events have simply been forgotten, as they never receive the recognition which one would expect, as when Tim is finally told his parents' secret. This creates a curiously unemotional atmosphere.

Fortunately, the film is layered throughout with observational humour, which lightens the mood and brings a greater degree of warmth to its characters. Much of this is subtle, understated stuff, which some viewers may miss, but as such adds to the sensation that Tim is experiencing the world very differently from his parents and most of his peers, encountering pain and humour, which others cannot see. Emile Hirsch turns in a fine naturalistic performance, displaying his sense of isolation, his need for reassurance and his determination to find his own direction.

Though deeply flawed, Imaginary Heroes is nevertheless an affecting portrait of skewed family life. It will certainly be interesting to see what Harris is capable of in the future.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2006
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A family struggles to find its way after the death of its eldest son.
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Director: Dan Harris

Writer: Dan Harris

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch, Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Kip Pardue, Deirdre O'Connell, Ryan Donowho

Year: 2004

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Germany/Belgium


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