Chad Lowe has long suffered being the second banana to his brother and his ex-wife. Even though he won an Emmy for his work on ABC’s Life Goes On, (in which, let’s face it, he was second banana to Corky and Kellie Martin), he’s never gained the attention he deserves as an actor. Perhaps this is why he has stepped behind the camera to direct shorts and episodic television. With the confidence he gained from those endeavors, Lowe moved on to movies and his feature directorial debut, Beautiful Ohio, comes out on DVD November 25th. The coming-of-age drama is a strong effort in which Lowe handles both the big-name stars and the unknown actors who star in the film.
Indeed, with William Hurt as one of your central characters, any novice director would run the risk of losing control and having Hurt walk away with the movie. But that is not the case in Beautiful Ohio. Hurt slips into the ensemble seamlessly and actually betters the performances of everyone around him.
The film is set in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1973. The protagonist is William (Brett Davern), a young boy lost in the shadow of his mathematical genius brother, Clive (David Call). As the film opens, Clive has drifted away from his family; the weight of being a genius has begun to bear down on him. For Clive, math is just something he sees does, he does not believe he is amazing. Meanwhile, his parents gloat over him and the neighbors are endlessly impressed. Still, William’s mother (Rita Wilson) does her best to place the spotlight on William as much as possible. I have never seen Wilson perform as nicely as she does in this movie. He face wears the pain she feels for her younger son and the anger she has toward her husband well. And when she speaks, it’s with a quiet reserve. In this film, the mother is the glue holding the family together and Wilson does an excellent job.
William Hurt is the patriarch of the family and in many ways, he’s as lost as Clive and William. A veteran of war (presumably Korea), he has settled on selling insurance for a living. As he sees the world changing around him and feels that his life is standing still, Simon is desperate to feel alive. Whether it’s listening to Clive’s MC5 records, flirting with his gorgeous, younger neighbor (an effective, albeit underutilized Julianna Margulies) or trying dope for the first time, Simon is like a character lifted from an Arthur Miller play and tossed into a 70’s counterculture movie. Despite the anger bubbling under the surface though, Simon still has a great deal of affection for his boys. In particular, the scenes between Simon and William are funny and moving.
Despite the presence of Hurt and Wilson, the film would not work if William’s character were not unbelievable. Davern does a wonderful job playing a mixed of teenage boy trying to understand the brother he once knew so well. At times, his performance perfectly captures the awkwardness of being a teenage boy. Whether it’s 1973 or 2008, that awkwardness never changes. Call, on the other hand, is a bit uneven as the enigmatic Clive. At times he tries to come off as a mere presence, yet his acting falls flat. Other moments, when he’s actually communicating with his younger brother, Call does a better job. It’s almost as if the script didn’t know exactly what to do with his character. Because of this unevenness, I was never really sure how to feel about Clive. Sometimes I liked him; sometimes I thought he was a dick. Perhaps Lowe was making a statement about big brothers in general: Sometimes they’re your best friend, sometimes your biggest nuisance.
Of all the performances in the film, the only misfire is Michelle Trachtenberg as Sandra, a wayward teenage girl who is Clive’s “lover” (as she puts it) and is secretly living in the Messerman basement. When William makes the discovery that Sandra is living behind the furnace, he develops feelings for her, feelings he has a hard time processing seeing as she’s his brother’s girl. Trachtenberg (who won an award for this role in the Sarasota Film Festival) comes off as trying a little too hard to be a “tough” girl. I never bought it. From the way she smoked her cigarettes to the pseudo-tough talk she gives to William, it all felt a little forced.
When I finished watching Beautiful Oho, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t just watching a film set in 1973, but that the film itself felt like an homage to films from the early ’70s. With long dramatic pauses and quiet moments that allow for the viewer to take in the scenery or just to stare at the actors’ faces, it feels like Lowe was trying to emulate Hal Ashby. From the cinematography to the score, Beautiful Ohio tries not to feel like your typical indie movie. Although it does have its weaknesses, Lowe definitely shows that he has what it takes — and that he deserves the spotlight.