David Duchovny was so oblique as an actor on The X Files that it's unsettling, at first, to see him take such a straight-ahead approach with his semiautobiographical screenwriting and directorial debut. He has set out to make a coming-of-age story, and that is exactly what he achieves. He pushes no boundaries with this tale of a boy on the cusp of manhood facing a climactic crisis '- that just happens to fall on his 13th birthday in 1973.
That's not to say that Duchovny has failed. He has merely switched his audience from the sci-fi lovers who cherished his Mulder to an art-house crowd that likes to see a well-acted period character drama with a heart and a romantic setting like the West Village in Manhattan. Like many actors who have taken a spin behind the camera, Duchovny's core strength is in attracting talent and getting great performances from his cast.
He relies first of all on his real-life wife, Téa Leoni, to play Mrs. Warshaw, a mournful widow who has a hidden spark. With her husband recently deceased, she is her son Tommy's whole world, but she is unreliable in her shaky grief. Leoni's character doesn't get a first name, which gives a sense of the proportion of the role, but she has enough presence to be the soul of the whole film despite being in just a small fraction of the scenes.
Tommy (Anton Yelchin, who played the young boy in Hearts of Atlantis) has a scratchy prepubescent voice that cracks in all the wrong places and an earnest manner that the actor pushes too precociously. He also has a bush of '70s hair, an extreme awkwardness of style that leads him to an orange leisure suit, and an overreliance on his mother. Obviously, this character's going to have some issues with girls.
His father figure is his mentally challenged neighbor, Pappass (Robin Williams), who is the janitor at his Catholic school and helps him deliver meat for a butcher after school. Williams is so restricted by the capacities of his character that it almost appears at times that his face is frozen. But he pulls off the gentle-giant routine with enough zing to make it clear there's talent behind the mask.
The only plot thread that really strings along through the film is that the guys are saving up for a bike. They hide their money under a grate at the base of a women's house of detention '- which gives the film its title '- where inmates hang through the bars to talk to people below. Tommy makes friends with one woman (Erykah Badu), who gives him advice on girls as if she's a voice from God. The movie is really about passing time before an impending doom, however. Tommy is headed for a tumultuous fall as his mother comes unglued, Pappass gets left behind and a teenage love takes over his life (in the form of Williams's daughter, Zelda).
The movie actually sets up this whole scenario from the point of view of Tommy as an adult (played by Duchovny) in Paris, and makes it clear from the start of the flashback that the young boy's story doesn't exactly have a happy resolution. The grown Tommy is lonely and estranged from his family, and he has to resolve the issues of his past before he can connect with his own son, who is about the same age as he was when all of this got started.
Duchovny, surprisingly, is a fan of happy endings. So even though the movie reaches emotionally roiling depths when Tommy's world falls apart, the director brings it back up before the curtain falls, like a series finale that wraps up all the loose ends. It's a TV trick in a movie world, which Duchovny would have been better served to leave behind when he left the small screen.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you cry, but not in a satisfying way
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Téa Leoni, Robin Williams, David Duchovny
Director/screenwriter: David Duchovny
Producers: Zanne Devine, Adam Merims, Jeff Skoll
Release date: April 15, 2005, in New York and Los Angeles; later nationwide
Distributor: Lions Gate