Featuring “Like Crazy” up-and-comer Felicity Jones alongside Julia Ormond and German actor Sebastian Koch ("The Lives of Others"), the British indie film "Albatross" possesses a pretty impressive cast, especially considering the director Niall MacCormick (U.K. TV and BBC films "The Song of Lunch," "Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley" and "Wallander") is making his feature film debut.
But the true shining star here, the gem to watch for in the future, is the film’s lead, Jessica Brown Findlay (the British TV series “Downton Abbey”). Unfortunately, that’s about all the movie has to offer that feels fresh, inspired and genuine. MacCormick may have directed stars like Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Andrea Riseborough and more in the past, but the cloying, unfortunately sentimental tone and predictable story beats in "Albatross" don’t do this familiar coming-of-age tale any favors.
Findlay stars as Emilia, an aspiring novelist and 17-year-old wild child who has just arrived in town. She is supposedly the granddaughter of Arthur Conan Doyle and repeats the fact aloud often. Having lost her mom to a suicide, she lives with her senile grandmother and aged grandfather, but wastes time with her spliff-smoking boyfriend (Harry Treadaway) and looks for work outside of her coastal South-English town. In finding work as a house keeper in a local inn, she befriends Beth (Jones), a meekish bookworm teenager focused on getting into Oxford University.
While conventional in the sense that Emilia is obviously the rebellious teenager that will eventually corrupt Beth’s sheltered, bookish tendencies, the picture does start auspiciously enough. But after a promising, even endearing set-up, “Albatross” quickly takes a turn for the worse after the first act.
As Beth’s dad, Koch plays a once-famous author coasting on the fumes of his debut success, but he’s written nothing of note since. When he takes a shine to Emilia’s interest in writing, we’re hoping the film doesn’t veer off into the telegraphed direction it appears to be going, but with Ormond playing a shrill, controlling harpy of a mother…sigh, there’s really only one way the picture can go, isn't there.
As this affair begins to grow — sorry, not a spoiler, it’s in every synopsis, trailer and logline — “Albatross” begins to lose the plot. And what's often a mildly diverting, harmless little indie film — at least at first — is frequently marred by terrible choices in forced pop music, coupled with a horribly precious score, so much so that it feels like a massive tonal blind spot for the filmmaker. And it’s right around the second act, as if on an aforementioned awful musical cue, where this drama starts to take on comedic, dramedy-like, goofy tones, that the whole picture starts to buckle and wobble.
Throughout it all, however, there’s the guiding force of Findlay as Emilia, who strikes a chord as a genuinely precocious, insouciant yet naive teenager with an unruly and mischievous streak. As a flirty little tart, she’s authentically seductive, and when she’s in over her head and the contrite tears begin to inevitably flow, the audience generally feels empathy for the teenager, who is simply looking for something or someone solid to pin her hopes on. It should be said that Felicity Jones does an admirable job as the understated and introverted Beth, but with an outsized part to play, this is truly Findlay’s vehicle and every scene is hers.
Yet as affectingly troubled as her engaging character is, and as poignant as her ambition and yearning for true friendship and love can be, “Albatross” just becomes mired in feel-bad cliches. Strings swell, tears burst, friendships break, but most of all lots of life lessons are learned.
As fucked as everyone is at the end of the picture — there’s a divorce, a broken friendship and more — “Albatross” still has the guile to give off little Hallmark moments backed by twinkling score notes and hopeful smiles from each every character to suggest, “Hey, we shit the bed here, but everything’s going to be ok.” And nauseating notes like that just can’t be excused. Findlay may have charms to spare, even burn, but “Albatross” never truly catches fire the way you might hope. [C-]