A mawkish coming-of-age story that marries Sundance vibes with a soft punk spirit, Peter Livolsi’s “The House of Tomorrow” never manages to flesh out its skeleton of quirks, but its heart is definitely in the right place.
Very faithfully adapted from Peter Bognanni’s 2010 novel of the same name, Livolsi’s directorial debut is — after “Brigsby Bear” and “The Space Between Us” — at least the third new film this year that falls into the beguiling sub-genre of movies about young men who’ve been raised in isolation from the rest of the world. The stranger life gets, the more we might be compelled towards portraits of people who can stand outside of civilization and offer a new perspective on the mess we’ve made (in which case, we ought to brace for this sub-genre to get a lot bigger between now and 2020).
This one begins in a geodesic dome in the woods of Minnesota, where teenaged Sebastian (“The Space Between Us” star Asa Butterfield, who has already made a career of playing wide-eyed fish out of water) has been raised and homeschooled by his sweetly dictatorial grandmother, Josephine (Ellen Burstyn). An acolyte and former lover of (the very real) 20th Century futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller, Josephine has dedicated her golden years to preserving the man’s visionary hope for the 21st, turning his greatest invention into a museum for students and a prison for her grandson, who’s too simple to know any better. Of course, puberty has a funny way of making kids ask questions, and when Sebastian gets an erection during an encounter with a girl named Meredith (Maude Apatow) who’s wandered away from her tour, it’s clear that the bubble he’s always lived in is about to burst.
Imminently, in fact. Just a few moments later, Josephine suffers a stroke when a visitor from a church group if “the world can be fixed,” and Sebastian is forced to accompany her to the hospital. There, waiting for his grandma to wake up, our sheltered hero strikes up a conversation with the scuzzy, green-haired Jared (Alex Wolff), who’s been living in a bubble of his own. Jared — who happens to be Meredith’s brother, and the son of the devoutly religious dad (Nick Offerman) who chaperoned their dome trip — is stuck in his room recovering from a heart transplant.
Forced to gulp down meds that make him piss himself, he’s an understandably angry adolescent whose frustration is filtered through some very mannered angst (his email address begins with “Jaredhatesyourface,” and he talks about “cock-punching” Sebastian minutes after they meet). Wolf works hard to reclaim some humanity from a character who’s been cobbled together from a thousand different tropes, but it’s only at the end of the film — after his unlikely friendship with Sebastian has inspired the boys to start a punk band called “The Rash” — that Jared feels like anything more than a cheap foil. The same goes for Meredith, whose sexual rebellion inevitably envelopes her brother’s strange new pal; Apatow is a captivating young actress who finds charisma for her character out of thin air, but she’s wasted on a part that only exists to spice up the film’s shapeless second act.
It’s strange, given the richness of his premise, that Livolsi is so unduly preoccupied with such familiar beats, and stranger still that Fuller’s influence remains so unclear. His presence is manifest in everything from archival footage (in which he’s seen driving a speedboat with a young Burstyn hanging on his arm) to Rob Simonsen’s killer retro-futurist score, but all that we really learn about the guy is that his hope for a better future has inspired Josephine to hide inside the past and deny the potential of the present. Josephine herself is given similarly short shrift; the movie treats her like a well-meaning but overprotective grandma who comes to realize that Fuller was his own kind of punk, but — through no fault of Burstyn’s — she comes off as a perturbed old lady with a flair for Stockholm Syndrome.
That some degree of sweetness manages to survive the film’s self-defeating approach is a testament to Livolsi’s cast, as well as his talent for making the most of the moments that work. A lot of potential may be left on the table, but sharp chords and sheer attitude are enough to build “The House of Tomorrow” into a warm enough story about the need for people to lay their own foundations.
“The House of Tomorrow” premiered at the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
Note: A previous version of this review stated that the archival footage in the film was “doctored.” Ellen Burstyn wishes to express that she was a close friend of Bucky’s for many years, and that she recorded the footage herself.