There’s a whole genre of youth movie, the one-great-night genre, in which two young people meet, share romance and adventure and look up to realize that their lives have changed entirely over the course of a few hours. “At Middleton” is the middle-aged equivalent of those pictures, a one-great-day movie, about two adults, very different from each other in personality, who make an unexpected and deep connection that they can’t deny.
It’s a lovely film that grows along with the characters. At first, it seems like a pleasing but inconsequential comedy. But it deepens as their connection deepens and opens up into a place of poignancy and insight. And Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia – not the first pair of actors you might imagine together – are beautifully matched.
Both play parents accompanying their teenage children on a college tour. Edith (Farmiga) is impulsive, funny and down-to-earth, a big personality whose occasional lapses into faux-jocular hostility are the only hints of some underlying unhappiness. And George (Garcia, cast against type) is all about self-control, a heart surgeon who wears a bowtie and presents an implacable facade. But because he’s played by Garcia, you know that the facade is protecting a volatile emotional nature.
Inevitably, they meet, and just as inevitably, they initially dislike each other. But when they escape the pre-packaged tour and wander off on their own, they have to amend their initial impressions. “At Middleton” is structured as a series of little episodes, all of a kind that might happen on a college campus, each one serving to bring Edith and George just a little bit closer.
A great strength of “At Middleton,” though some might see this as a weakness, resides in the resistance of director and co-writer Adam Rodgers to spell out the details of Edith and George’s home lives. For a long time we don’t know, for example, whether either is married or divorced. Nor do we know the precise circumstances that have left them with such emptiness waiting to be filled. The details don’t matter – indeed, they’re best imagined.
In one very memorable scene – perhaps the best in the movie – the two are invited to participate in an acting class, in which they must improvise a fraught marital conversation. Quite quickly – acting-class improvisations are almost always like this – the conversation becomes raw and painful, and the normally contained George has to struggle not to break down. It’s a wonderful scene for both actors, but especially for Garcia, who has been ill-served in some of his recent films.
Among the wrong assumptions of youth is that the most passionate feelings are experienced when young. But middle-aged people have an awareness of the clock, and that’s a profound intensifier. Rodgers and cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh express this vividly and wordlessly in a scene in which Edith and George join some students and run into a fountain. The film goes to slow motion, and the droplets are like sprays of diamonds around them. The grown-ups know, with an urgency that their kids can’t quite grasp, that at the end of your life you’ll always wish you’d jumped in the water.
Peter Riegert makes a welcome appearance as a campus DJ, and Edith and George’s children, played by Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s sister) and Spencer Lofranco, respectively, are given specifically drawn characters to play, not generic teenagers. So they give more than generic performances.