Some movies - most movies, in fact - grab you by the lapels and get right in your face. They tell you - in a million different ways - what to think and what to feel about every moment from start to finish.
Eric Mendelsohn's 3 Backyards is just the opposite.
A film that is at once lyrical and mysterious, familiar yet enigmatic, this movie, for which Mendelsohn won the directing award at Sundance 2010, is the very definition of an arthouse film - or, for that matter, of art.
In other words, this is a movie to which the audience must bring something. It's a movie that raises more questions than it answers, which offers a peek into a world you may not have seen - and which never explains just what it is you're seeing. It leaves you feeling haunted and touched, even if you can't express exactly what that is
Set over the course of a single day in an unnamed Long Island community, 3 Backyards is like a triptych of short stories, connected only by the general location. The three different plotlines don't intersect, though Mendelsohn blends them and finds resonances between them.
The first deals with a businessman (Elias Koteas), getting ready for a business trip. His marriage is obviously in trouble, judging by the tension with his wife (Kathryn Erbe) prior to his departure. But when he gets to the airport, he discovers that his flight has been cancelled and he will have to wait until the next day to leave.
The second storyline focuses on a little girl (Rachel Resheff), who is first glimpsed clandestinely searching her parents' bedroom, where she finds a bracelet that her father has purchased as a gift for her mother. Just as she tries it on, her school bus arrives - and in her unsuccessful attempts to take it off, she misses the bus. She runs to school to keep from being late - only to lose the bracelet along the way.
The final segment focuses on a housewife (Edie Falco), who is thrilled when a famous movie actress who is subletting a house on her block (Embeth Davidtz), shows up on her doorstep, asking for a ride to the local ferry landing.
None of these characters has the day they expect. The housewife discovers that the movie star is in the midst of some sort of emotional breakdown - but is unwilling to actually talk about it with her new "friend."
The businessman, meanwhile, at first rejects the airline's offer of a free hotel room: "I live here," he says. But when he drives home, he finds he'd rather observe his family from a distance than engage with them. So he does check into the hotel, then goes wandering in search of a place to eat - only to discover that he is in a part of his town that he's never seen before, one that seems a long way from his leafy suburban refuge.
Mendelsohn punctuates this with shots of the sun peaking through the trees and the sound of the wind in the leaves. These interludes of nature are like a moment to catch your breath, to stop and think about what you've seen, a palate cleanser before moving from one scene into another.
He draws detailed performances from a cast that actually doesn't have all that much dialogue. But the expressions that Falco offers in a single reaction shot speak volumes about what this woman is feeling, even if she could never articulate it. The same is true of Koteas, who evokes a sadness or melancholy without ever saying a word about it.
They don't make many films like 3 Backyards because, frankly, audiences have been weaned away from them. Modern moviegoers have been trained to expect certain things from the movie-going experience and that's unfortunate; their attention span for a movie that forces them to actually think about what they're seeing and arrive at their own interpretation is virtually nonexistent.
It's instructive that Mendelsohn also won the Sundance directing award for 1999's Judy Berlin, which wasn't released until 2000, after Falco, its star, had gained marketability, thanks to The Sopranos. It's taken the intervening years for him to get 3 Backyards on to screens. Hopefully, the next one won't take as long.