The bulk of films about white, upper-middle-class, suburban malaise in America–most notably Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty”–are paradoxical in that they explore internalized suffering through externalized, emotive storytelling, wherein even a blank stare comes charged with the assumption of dramatic suffering taking place underneath it. This is a form borrowed from the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, but it was far more justified in those films because they were less studies of individual people than they were expressions of larger social problems (ageism and classism in “All That Heaven Allows,” racism in “Imitation of Life,” etc.), to which the heightened drama lent immediacy. Not to mention, the theatrical nature of Sirk’s films was a good way to distract the Production Code-enforcing MPAA from the then-radical cultural messages.
I do not seek to begin a history lesson with the above; rather, I simply posit that the use of old-fashioned melodrama to engage in any sort of realist exploration of the human condition is a logically inconsistent method that routinely delegitimates entries into the “suburban problems” genre. This is because the suburban problems in question are never Sirk-like social inequities–contrary to Sam Mendes’ emphatic implication, Chris Cooper’s gay-hater in “American Beauty” is not a common real-life species–but more personal plights like depression and anxiety.
That’s why the wildly different style of Todd Louiso’s “Hello I Must Be Going,” which may not exactly take place in Levittown but belongs to the genre nonetheless, is so refreshing and comparatively authentic. This is a movie that keeps its protagonist’s unhappiness on the inside, without instructing the viewer what to think or feel about her. It taps into the heart of white, upper-middle-class, suburban malaise without vying to push any hot buttons, instead recognizing that empathy through observation can be the most powerful form of realization for the audience.
“Hello I Must Be Going” stars Melanie Lynskey in the bravest performance that she has delivered since the one she burst onto the scene with in 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.” Her 30-something Amy Minsky has moved back home with Mom (Blythe Danner, also terrific) and Dad (John Rubinstein) following a divorce, leaving her in a depressed state in which she does nothing but sleep and mope around the house in a sweaty T-shirt. That is, until she is forced to participate in a dinner party that her father is hosting for a potential client, whose college-aged son (Christopher Abbott) spontaneously kisses her when no one is looking. A secret, invigorating romance is born, not so much bringing Amy out of her misery as it makes her view her circumstances in a different light.
The combination of Lynskey’s full embodiment of Amy and Louiso and writer Sarah Koskoff’s social perceptiveness are what make the movie work, sans any narrative tricks or direct message-making. On the former: Lynskey treats Amy’s depression as an appropriately internalized entity and, aside from having the benefit of seeing all of her interactions with a variety of people, the viewer knows no more about Amy than her fellow characters. But they relate to her sheer humanity — that she is so clearly a real person who is stuck in a relatable rut. That’s the miracle of Lynskey’s performance: that it’s real, without having to be real in order to prove anything. Could there be a more valid reason to feel for a character?
Louiso and Koskoff enable Lynskey’s performance to work as well as it does by giving it the necessary context; the viewer not only feels for Amy because they recognize her as an individual, but also because they recognize the world that surrounds her. Interactions with supporting characters are especially key. There’s an early moment in which Amy has an embarrassing encounter with a former high school classmate that is stunning in the way that it transforms a conventional movie situation into an authentic one. The same could be said for Amy’s interactions with her mother, whose new-agey interior decorating ideas would have been played for quirky laughs in the average Sundance entry, but here are treated as a real piece of the personality of a woman in quiet despair.
If “Hello I Must Be Going” has a significant flaw, it is the ending, which one could argue takes the easy way out. However, one must give it credit for being, like the aforementioned elements of the movie, a considerable departure from its genre, not brooding in the least. Then again, perhaps it is wrong of me to discuss “Hello I Must Be Going” within the framework of the “suburban problems” mold at all, because Louiso and company couldn’t be less concerned with how their movie is classified. Instead, they are focused on what’s important: telling a human story as organically as possible — a task that they wholly accomplish.