In “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Derek Cianfrance’s time-spanning look at guilt and responsibility across multiple generations, Ryan Gosling plays a reckless stunt driver suddenly thrust into fatherhood and engaged in bank robberies to provide for the son he just learned about. Despite his apparent commitment to a worthy cause, Gosling’s character engages in a recklessness that puts both himself and his family at risk: He’s not only an absent father but a dangerous one. Cianfrance himself may not suffer from the same risky tendencies, but the battle to obtain a commanding role over familial stability is almost certainly a personal one, judging by the portrait of his household’s interiors in “Towheads.” Directed by Cianfrance’s wife, the witty video performance artist Shannon Plumb, “Towheads” looks at the other side of the equation only glimpsed in “Pines”: Whereas in that movie we follow the absent father, “Towheads” observes the world he leaves behind.
Though lightly fictionalized, there’s no doubting “Towheads” hails from a real place. The movie, which most recently made its U.S. premiere at the New Directors/New Films festival (and screens once more on Saturday), features Plumb as a married Brooklynite actress named Penny, who wastes most of her days doting over her two young sons while her husband (Cianfrance, barely glimpsed in shadows with his face methodically obscured in various scenes) buries himself in his directing work. The couple’s children, the blond-headed Cody and Walker who give the movie its title, use their real names. Conceptually, the movie presents itself as the experimental alternative to Judd Apatow’s “This is Forty,” which similarly cast the director’s children in a version of the family’s off-camera life. But “Towhead” stretches far beyond simply portraying the inconsequential woes of suburban life to explore a much deeper sense of yearning that Plumb clearly endures on a regular basis.
Consolidating years of video artistry by stringing together various irreverent ideas into the movie’s vignette-like progression, “Towheads” follows Plumb on her ongoing quest to find a purpose beyond her responsibilities to her children. Constantly in the shadow of her husband’s success and fighting to make her own pursuits count, Plumb shows herself in a series of uncompromising situations: Dashing down busy streets with a stroller, failing auditions and donning costumes to obscure her physical shortcomings, she’s simultaneously a slapstick figure and an object of sympathy.
Plumb’s directorial style may have little in common with her husband’s approach, but it does seem to answer it. In “Pines” and “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance maintains a precise gravitas in every scene that lends a cold, discomfiting feeling to the drama. In “Towheads,” even the somber moments maintain a noticeable warmth to them — Plumb pokes fun at her unhappiness by rendering its poignance in broad comedic strokes. The result is an unlikely jokey take on domestic drama that’s still riddled with pathos, as if Jacques Tati directed “Jeanne Dielman.” Plumb’s focus on physical confusion, starting with an opening gag in which she mistakenly assumes construction workers are wooing her on the street (they’re actually looking at the woman in front of her), create a marvelously entertaining rhythm that connects each scene. Using an irreverent approach to narrative that echoes Miranda July, Plumb expresses a capricious view of self-image problems and the alienating feelings of a daily routine without getting bogged down by the bad vibes.
It helps that Plumb’s onscreen presence is inherently funny. Her throaty voice and darting eyes define the movie’s cartoonish sensibility, which extends to her antics: On a whim, she buys a couture dress for a botched audition to which she dashes while battling to keep control of her stroller with one hand. In another failed gig, she crumbles during the filming of an awful tampon commercial.
The silly qualities of Plumb’s life take on a tragic dimension when juxtaposed with her husband’s apparently disaffected regard for his wife’s sadness. (“Go get a facial,” he sighs one morning when she tries to complain.) While Plumb’s fragmented approach doesn’t always hold together, the ongoing discord of her household remains emotionally substantial. “I want your help,” she tells her beau at one point. His excuse, that committing to his work to support the family takes precedence over assisting his wife’s personal hangups, recalls Gosling’s vain commitment in “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Cianfrance claims that he’s “living in the real world with real responsibilities,” and yet for that very reason he’s disconnected from Plumb’s life.
But Plumb, as Penny, finds plenty of ridiculous ways to stay busy. Donning a mustache and roaming about town in a manly outfit (borrowing a bit from one of her video works), she auditions for the role of a Salvation Army Santa Clause under the name “Mike Tyson” — and then, against all odds, lands it. It’s the epitome of the way “Towheads” cleverly embodies the inherent absurdities in the daily struggle to make each moment feel worthwhile. Even her desperate attempt to land a striptease gig feels like a progressive act simply because it breaks her routine.
In “Towheads,” every comic bit is weighted with an awkward blend of sadness and irreverent humor. At one point, Penny’s husband boldly asks her if she’s enduring a midlife crisis; she chooses not to reply. The behavior speaks for itself. In “Pines,” that tension comes out in a sensational plot involving crime and marital turmoil. “Towheads” finds a more familiar discomfort in the details of everyday life.
“Towheads” screens once more at New Directors/New Films on Saturday evening.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Towheads” may not have potential in wide release, but it’s charming enough to attract some decent reviews and could have some potential in ancillary markets.