At Middleton (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
There is a scene that takes place in the middle of “At Middleton,” written by Glenn German and Adam Rodgers, that hints at how wonderful, sweet, and romantic the film could have been. Two strangers who had met each other only about an hour or so climb to the top of a tower. Edith (Vera Farmiga) would rather inhale the breeze and admire the view, but George (Andy Garcia) would rather read off a brochure and learn the importance of the place they stand on. But a couple of minutes later, we discover that the situation is not as simple as it appears.
George and Edith are married—but not to each other. George has a son, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco), who has no interest in the university that his father attended. Edith has a daughter, Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), who, unlike Conrad, is dead set on attending Middleton because she hopes that the linguistics professor she admires will agree to be her advisor. During a campus tour, Edith and George decide to break from the group and get to know one another better—even though they seem to be complete opposites.
The film is at its best when it sticks with the conceit of two people just talking to one another and trying to figure each other out. Though not quite on the level of Richard Linklater’s signature series of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, there is an effortlessness in Farmiga and Garcia’s performances that helped me buy into what their characters could have had even though the actors, physically, are not exactly attractive or alluring together. Farmiga is luminous as a woman who enjoys living in the moment and Garcia is fascinating as a man who does not say much but one can tell he feels and thinks a whole lot.
A standout scene involves the central couple having to act on a stage in front of a group of theater students. While on that stage, notice how the camera moves and nails itself in one position. The silence builds to a boil then becomes somewhat overpowering. Both stuck in marriages that are not exactly working out, we learn about Edith and George’s profound sadness. More importantly, we discover how badly they want to escape.
Significantly less impressive are the more comedic scenes in the latter half. One scene that runs too long involves the couple meeting a pair of twenty-year-olds in a relationship. They spend some time inside the dorm room getting high and complaining about what they feel is wrong in their lives. The clash between an elegant exorcism of romantic wants and needs versus an overt disclosure of what they feel are wrong in their lives do not work tonally. Why not make an adult picture that does not try way too hard to be funny and stick with it?
I enjoyed that the screenplay does not force Audrey and Conrad to have any sort of romantic feelings toward one another. The actors look good together physically so writers with less resolve might have been tempted to put a little spice into the equation. Instead, the film, directed by Adam Rodgers, makes the two young people more complicated—even unlikeable at times—than what we come to expect. On that level, it respects the audience.