Jocelyn Towne’s directorial debut “I Am I” has the greatest intentions in the world, but thanks in large part to a hollow concept, the surface peels off quickly and reveals an emotionally vacant core. It’s worth noting how enticing that surface actually is, with the trailer doing a great job of inviting you into an intimate story of father-daughter bonding, which looks to be just sweet enough to dilute the familiar toxicity of Hollywood’s formulas. And something about Towne’s screen presence, which gives off an offbeat quirky vibe similar to Lisa Kudrow on a quiet day, contrasting against Kevin Tighe’s kindly, oblivious old man, makes the delicate evolution of the central relationship endearing to behold. Anyone who has an estranged relationship with one or both of their parents can easily relate to the emotional jolts experienced by the central character, and the situation she’s faced with has just enough movie-world exoticism to compel an audience to sit through its succinct 87-minute running time. Sadly, however, the surface is too easily scratched in “I Am I” to reveal a harsh reality about great intentions: they’re not enough.
The plot follows Rachel, a woman in her thirties, whose mother recently passed away. She’s surrounded by people who love her including: her noticeably older husband Keith (James Morrison), grieving step-dad Michael (Josh Clark), and her step-brother Seth (Simon Helberg). Even while awkwardly bursting into laughter over the demise of her childhood pet cat, it’s clear that Rachel was very close to her mother and the passing affects her. Meanwhile, Gene (Tighe) lives in a home for the elderly and suffers from an acute type of Alzheimer’s; he is stuck in 1979 and believes he’s still 34 years old. One day, he recognizes his wife Sarah in the obituary section of the papers and goes to visit the burial service, conveniently not realizing that she’s in the obits because she’s passed on. It just so happens, then, that Gene is Rachel’s long lost biological father who left her when she was one year old. When the two cross paths at the graveyard, Gene mistakes Rachel for her mother Sarah, and Rachel is left gobsmacked by the unexpected encounter with her biological father. Gene’s young and dashing caretaker Jonathan (Jason Ritter) quickly shuffles Gene away but not before the old man manages to slip his phone number to Rachel, who is now faced with an unconventional scenario. When she visits him, she realizes that Gene doesn’t just mistake her for Sarah, he is convinced that she is Sarah, and what’s more, he has no recollection of ever having fathered a child, even though he had Rachel when he was 31. Does Rachel play along and pretend to be her mother in order to get closer to her father? How do you handle a situation like this without making it totally creepy?
This crucial dilemma, which makes up the entire conflict of “I Am I,” is dealt with in minutes and most of the film sees Rachel just spending a lot of time with Gene, conversations resulting in a plot that keeps spinning its wheels in place. The two principals actors do a fine job with the material at hand, but since one of these actors is the writer-director herself, her role is inevitably under more scrutiny than anyone else’s. She pulls off her role as actress much better than her roles of writer and director, which just barely saves the film from complete disaster. After all, there is nothing else to latch onto here. Every single character aside from the two leads is written as a crutch without a shred of humanity in them, and we’d wager some crutches have bigger personalities than the husband Keith, whose sole purpose and role in this film is to be the affirmative answer to the question: “Does Rachel have daddy issues?” There is very little in the way of original shot composition and absolutely no sign of a first-timer’s gutsiness to experiment with the medium even at the risk of stylized coercion. Andrew Levitas’ “Lullaby” (review here) came out on the same day as “I Am I” and though it’s quite far from a perfect film, there’s still a mild sense of daring and initiative with the direction to make it commendable. There’s none of that here, and it’s felt, because a little bit of directional variety would have gone a long way to defibrillate this story away from completely flatlining. To its credit though, there is very little to no creepiness. Sadly, the script itself is much too scant when dealing with Rachel’s predicaments; the more internalized they become, the less we care about the outcome and, really, about any of the characters or the actions taking place.
The decisions made by the characters of “I Am I” feel so rushed that everyone’s emotional compass is either utterly broken, ignored, useless, or frustratingly disorienting. Part of the problem is also that Rachel is the only character written to make any kind of decisions grounded in reality and her compass is the most wayward one, which leaves you emotionally attaching yourself to a man who can’t think too much when looking at himself in the mirror because he might freak out. Never mind that this guy abandoned his child. Reading about how “I Am I” was partially funded by Kickstarter makes this critique feel a little evil, as if its lashing out on a defenseless, harmless endeavor, but anything else would just be dishonest. While there are more than a couple moments of tenderness, which most parents and children will be able to relate to, the great intentions “I Am I” may have had with its intimate story of bonding fall far too short. [D+]