Director: Michael Mayer
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At 200 and a half, the United States that was founded with hope and idealism by independent thinkers and adventurers in a land rich with human and natural resources is just about gone. Convulsing through two extremely violent centuries, overtaken by corporate and ideological extremists, and plunging through its second Depression in less than a century, even the small hopes pinned on the historic election of a multiracial president can’t flush the toxins out of our system in time to save us. A Home at the End of the World, by its very title, content, and the timing of its release, suggests an elegy for the vigor and promise of America.
The story begins in Cleveland in 1967, the year that gave us the Summer of Love and a resurgence of idealism and independent thinking that we can look back on now as the Indian Summer of the fast-to-winter American Dream. Nine-year-old Bobby Morrow (Andrew Chalmers) is awakened by some moans coming from his brother Carlton’s (Ryan Donowho) room. He walks in and stands wide-eyed and frozen as he watches Carlton’s naked girlfriend Emily (Asia Vieira) ride a blissed-out Carlton to a certain climax, that is, until she notices Bobby and hastily dresses and climbs out Carlton’s window. Carlton asks Bobby if he is freaked out. “No…a little.” Don’t worry, Carlton reassures him. It’s just love, the most natural thing in the world.
Bobby worships and trusts Carlton, accepting a hit of window pane from him as they hop their fence to Carlton’s favorite spot in the cemetery next door and listening to him expound upon how alike and present the living and the dead are. One evening, Bobby’s hero-worship is put to the test when Carlton tells him not to be such an asshole by hanging around at their parents’ party. Angered, Bobby runs upstairs. Carlton follows him and tells him that their parents need some adult time. Placated but unwilling to be left out, Bobby sneaks down to the party and hides near the patio doors to watch his brother climb on the fence between the graveyard and their yard and then jump down and run back to the party, not noticing that the glass door has been closed. He smashes through it, pulls a piece of glass out of his neck, and bleeds to death on the living room floor.
The film skips ahead seven years. Bobby (Erik Smith) has taken up his brother’s hippie mantle and, quite at random, invites Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan) to leave school to smoke a joint with him. When Jonathan first brings Bobby home, his mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) says a shocked “I’m sorry,” on learning that Bobby’s mother has died the year before. “Why?” Bobby asks, not understanding why she feels personally responsible. “I’m sorry…in a general way…for your loss.” Still uncomprehending, but accepting, Bobby simply compliments her on the bread she’s baked and chows down unself-consciously. Bobby and Jonathan become fast friends, jerking each other off during a sleepover in a shy, sweet scene. When tragedy strikes Bobby again—the death of his father—the Glovers take him in.
The film shifts nine years. Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) has made good on his promise to leave Cleveland as soon as he can and is living in New York City. Ned Glover (Matt Frewer) has developed respiratory problems, and he and Alice are moving to Arizona. When Bobby (Colin Farrell) asks what he’s supposed to do, Alice gently pushes him out of the nest: “You’re 24. You should be out living your own life.” Like a homing pigeon, Bobby lands on Jonathan’s doorstep. A love triangle soon forms as Clare (Robin Wright Penn), Jonathan’s “fashion-forward” roommate, tenderly takes Bobby’s virginity in her quest to get pregnant and ends up falling for him, only to realize later, after they’ve all moved to a house in Woodstock, that Bobby is the love of Jonathan’s life and, perhaps, the feeling is mutual.
Adapted by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) from his own novel, the film makes a necessarily truncated, but nonetheless novelistic survey of the times of its principal characters. Jonathan was a fortunate teen to find an accepting boy with whom to explore his homosexuality, and he does not hesitate to explore the gay free love movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Clare is afflicted with Pretty in Pink syndrome—quirky clothing and design sense abetted not by poverty (she has a trust fund), but by a desire to escape her proper Philadelphia roots and be artistic.
Bobby, however, is stuck in the past, and not even his past, but rather his brother’s. His one overt passion is rock music, and he is awed that Clare was at Woodstock. (“What was it like?” he asks with starry-eyed enthusiasm. “Muddy,” is her—and the standard—reply.) Bobby, having lost his own nuclear family and internalized the hippie sense of family—one created among friends through mutual love—slips easily into any situation, an ability Clare comments on with a mixture of envy and disapproval. While Clare and Jonathan run from tradition, it is the lack of a centering principle in their ’80s philosophy of life that sends them plunging right back, as they find themselves unwilling to share Bobby. In the end, Bobby is truest to the memory of what his brother meant to him and the long-ago vision he had while tripping that everything is connected, both living and dead.
It’s hard to know where to start praising the many fine performances in this film. Sissy Spacek is a marvel as the kind of housewife The Feminine Mystique described—accepting her role as wife and mother and then surprising her incredulous son by accepting a joint from Bobby and dancing with him to Laura Nyro. The moment she decides to do so is an acting lesson in itself, asserting that she’s Jonathan’s mother and then letting her reserve melt when a very sincere Bobby, played with a beautiful wistfulness by Erik Smith, says she’s more than that, acknowledging her personhood. Alice suggests to Clare when they finally meet that her arrangement with the two men is a better way to go; she won’t be stuck one day wondering why she spent her life doing laundry.
Wright Penn has a difficult job of suggesting a faux bohemian. It’s a thankless role, and she never quite overcomes its fey aspects. Her declaration that she was so in love with Jonathan comes a little out of nowhere and relies more on the audience’s knowledge of fag haggery than on character development. But in her sexual initiation of Bobby, she hits all the right notes, echoing Carlton’s philosophy that “it’s all good.”
Dallas Roberts does a superb job of playing a real man, not a gay stereotype. He’s mature and understated, counteracting Clare’s flamboyance, and a scene in which they are choosing a paint color for the nursery is realistic, not a sitcom moment. His love for Bobby doesn’t spill out all at once, but as a suppressed anguish when he finds Bobby and Clare in bed. He’s cautious about Bobby’s affectionate kisses and hugs, not really knowing what Bobby’s sexual preferences are. He loves Bobby, but he doesn’t really understand him.
The character of Bobby is done enormous justice by the three actors who play him. While young Andrew Chalmers has the least screen time, he captures the curious follower quality that will characterize Bobby for the rest of his life. As the film progressed, I was quite reminded of the character continuity Michael Apted captured in his Up series of documentaries. Erik Smith is very natural and open, playing beautifully off the intentionally stiffer Jonathan of Harris Allan, a gawky young man Bobby teaches to accept himself and those around him. Perhaps being uptight is a necessary characteristic to growing up, however, because it shows society has worked its socialization influence. Bobby seems largely untouched by social expectations, though he is easily influenced by those he loves and wants to please. Colin Farrell is miraculously good at playing this gentle soul who becomes a baker because Alice taught him how to bake one sleepless night and who has no particular ambitions except to love and be loved. He’s the “Nature Boy” Nat King Cole sang so affectingly about, real, yet not completely in the world.
Michael Mayer, a relatively inexperienced director, is to be commended for meshing the performances of the actors who play Bobby and Jonathan through the years so well and for helping to fill out the slightly underwritten roles of the actresses—though, of course, Spacek and Wright Penn are wonderful actresses who know how to make the most of what they have. His mise-en-scène isn’t terribly interesting, though the set decoration and costuming are dead on, and he doesn’t trust the audience as much as he should—we really could have figured out that Carlton would bleed to death without having him show us the shard of glass in his neck. The ending, a mental flashback that must have been lifted from the book, was unsuccessful and ruined the elegiac mood of the winterscape set-up, but by that time, I was so in love with this film, it really didn’t matter.