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Review: ‘3 Backyards’

More Than White Picket Fences

Above: Edie Falco with Embeth Davidtz in "3 Backyards."

Three residents of one suburban town experience one not altogether ordinary autumn day in Eric Mendelsohn's "3 Backyards" (opening June 24 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15 Cinemas).

I love Edie Falco. I have loved her ever since I saw her in the Hal Hartley films "The Unbelievable Truth" (1989) and "Trust" (1990). As an actress she came across as smart (even when her characters weren't), sassy, and very real. Filmmaker Eric Mendelsohn seems to love her too. He cast her in his feature film debut "Judy Berlin" in 1999, and for his second film he gives her another choice role.

Elias Koteas stars as a businessman adrift in his own town in "3 Backyards."

Screen Media

Above: Elias Koteas stars as a businessman adrift in his own town in "3 Backyards."

"3 Backyards" offers a contemplative look at a slice of suburban life. First we meet John (Elias Koteas), a businessman experiencing problems with his wife (Kathryn Erbe). Then there's diminutive Christina (Rachel Resheff) who tries on her mother’s bracelet in the morning and then misses the school bus. And finally we meet Peggy (Edie Falco), a helpful neighbor who's thrilled to be asked by her celebrity neighbor (Embeth Davidtz) for a lift to the ferry. For all three characters the day begins in an ordinary fashion but through the course of events, all three experience an unexpected journey.

Having "3 Backyards" in theaters at the same time that "Tree of Life" is playing seems apt. Both films favor visual storytelling in which much of the information is conveyed strictly through images rather than dialogue. But this storytelling approach can frustrate some filmgoers who are used to being told what to think and feel rather than making those discoveries themselves.

Embeth Davidtz stars as an actress renting a home in the suburban town of "3 Backyards."

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Above: Embeth Davidtz stars as an actress renting a home in the suburban town of "3 Backyards."

"3 Backyards" premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where Mendelsohn nabbed the Dramatic Directing Prize. Mendelsohn gives us an elegant surface to gaze upon. The neat suburban town (the film was shot on Long Island) is presented to us in static shots, slow pans, steady tracking shots, and occasional zooms. Mendelsohn provides some close ups but generally we feel like we are coming at this environment from the outside. At times he keeps the camera steadfastly set outside a home as we hear something going on inside but we are not allowed in. John even becomes something of an outsider when his plane is canceled and he comes back home to simply peer in the windows and observe his family. He may live there but he acts like a displaced traveler.

We may be kept physically outside at times but Mendelsohn also manages to give us a surprisingly intimate window into the emotional lives of these characters. We get to peer in at just the moment that there's a perceptible shift in their lives. For John, it's a realization about the value of his family; for Christina it's an ominous brush with danger; and for Peggy it's an emotional confrontation that makes her look more closely at her own life. In a certain sense, none of these events is extraordinary -- there's no headline news here. Yet in terms of these characters' lives the events are quite profound. Mendelsohn has a nice way of playing both sides of this. We understand the importance of events for each character yet there's a restraint and detachment in the narrative tone that keeps everything in perspective. The suggestion is that these kind of profound moments happen inside these neatly kept homes all the time but we just aren't aware of them.

The observing eyes of Rachel Resheff in "3 Backyards."

Screen Media

Above: The observing eyes of Rachel Resheff in "3 Backyards."

The performers are all exceptional. Falco makes Peggy both grating and vulnerable so that we feel both annoyed by her pushiness but touched by her humanity. Koteas gives us a man who goes on a journey without ever really leaving his home. He doesn't have much to say but he conveys so much with his eyes. And speaking of eyes, little Resheff mesmerizes us with her big expressive eyes. But hers are also innocent eyes and we see things from her perspective knowing that she does not yet understand some of the dangers around her. Mendelsohn creates tension and a sense of ominous foreboding by playing up the contrast between what Resheff's Christina is seeing and what we know is really going on. Davidtz is also fine as the actress trying to remain private without appearing to be a snob.

"3 Backyards" (rated R for a scene of sexual content) is not a warm and fuzzy feel good film and I mean that as a compliment. Instead, it serves up a measured examination of a small group of characters that is at subtle turning points in their lives. And although Mendelsohn maintains a certain cool detachment, he also allows the film to occasionally soar in unexpected ways.

Companion viewing: "Tree of Life," "Blue Velvet," "Junebug," "Judy Berlin"

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