A Home at the End of the World

(2004) *** R
95 min. Warner Independent Pictures. Director: Michael Mayer. Cast: Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, Dallas Roberts, Matt Frewer, Erik Smith.

Unpredictable but sure-footed, A Home at the End of the World is as easy-going as its lead character, Bobby Morrow. In his most tender performance to date, Colin Farrell plays a man who's open to suggestion, a conflict avoider who—ignoring the tragic precedents of his young life—just wants everything to feel good and right with the world. Since he wrote the screenplay himself, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham (The Hours) sensibly represents his novel, and stage director Michael Mayer—with his film debut—applies a suitably gentle touch to this compact character piece.

Appropriate to his windblown character, Bobby is sexually ambiguous and free-loving in the term's purest possible interpretation. As a teenager in 1970s Cleveland, Bobby (then played by Erik Smith) strikes up a best-friendship with Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan). Jonathan, coming into his own gay identity, breaks out of his shell with the free-spirited Bobby; together, they smoke pot, listen to Laura Nyro, and eventually explore each other's bodies. These developments disconcert Jonathan's mother Alice (Sissy Spacek), who employs humorously unique methods to infiltrate her son's guarded new identity.

Jonathan goes off to college, and Bobby doesn't, spurring new phases of young adulthood. In 1982 New York City, Bobby (now played by Farrell) reunites with Jonathan (stage actor Dallas Roberts, in his film debut), but much has changed. Jonathan, now a promiscuous gay man with a pre-AIDS consciousness, shares an apartment with an older roommate, Clare (Robin Wright Penn); the two are in not-so-idle discussions about having a child together, since both lack a suitable mate. Though Jonathan still harbors unmatched romantic feelings for Bobby, he hesitates to express them. Clare isn't so hesitant: she beds Bobby soon after his arrival and sends the threesome's various relationships spinning into uncharted waters. Jonathan opines, "I'm starting to feel a little extra," but Bobby insists, "You're essential, man," and the three move toward the détente of an unconventional family structure.

Mayer's unobtrusive direction results in vivid work from his cast. If some of Cunningham's dialogue is overly obvious, he compensates by letting sentences go unfinished and thoughts unexpressed in the film's more pensive moments. In this way, Cunningham and Mayer keep the ambitious, hurried plot on an even-enough keel. Audiences will probably leave the theatre wanting more in the way of definitive characterization and resolution, but the film's restraint is admirably offbeat. Wordless dance sequences between Bobby and Jonathan, for example, go a long way to advancing their characters.

Death and fear are always present in Cunningham's story, but so are life and possibility; separation and isolation gravitate pleadingly toward bonds of love. As the title indicates, Cunningham concerns himself with where his characters live, literally and figuratively. Naturally, home is where the heart is. "I don't suppose anyone knows what they're getting into until they're into it," says Clare. In Cunningham's humble drama, characters credibly fall into their circumstances, which makes A Home at the End of the World feel lived in.

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