In suburbia, USA, Esther (Glenn Close) is busy caring for her invalid son, Paul (Joshua Jackson), while her daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell, "Election"), pines for a chance at a guilt-free life. Jim (Dermot Mulroney, "About Schmidt") is a lawyer who has been passed over for promotion, forcing him to quit his job and confront the life he leads with his wife (Moira Kelly, "The Cutting Edge") and the two children that he's not sure he ever asked for. Annette (Patricia Clarkson, "Far From Heaven") is a single mother, and former lover to Paul, who is dealing with her belligerent ex-husband, and her own feelings of regret. Helen (Mary Kay Place, "Sweet Home Alabama") is a bored housewife looking for a little attention in all the wrong places. And Randy (Timothy Olyphant, "Go") is the local pool boy, who resorts to kidnapping to deal with his own deep-seated grief. In all, four families must weave through an emotional obstacle course to find sanity in their lives, relying not on each other, but on the objects they hold near.
Initially, "The Safety of Objects" (IMDb listing) (based on the A.M. Homes book) might appear to be another trip around the cul-de-sac in Todd Solondz territory. With the neatly trimmed lawns, 2.2 children per unhappily married couple and backyard ocean-blue pools covering seething anger and sexual frustration, one could easily be fooled into thinking they've stepped back into Solondz's 1998 valentine to the emotionally closeted, "Happiness." While I've always enjoyed Solondz's particular brand of crazy, "Objects" -- written and directed by Rose Troche -- isn't nearly as narcissistic. I liken this new film more to Paul Thomas Anderson's magnetic "Magnolia" (without the length), in that it's a tangled emotional experience focusing on people looking for connection in the confined spaces of their neighborhood, but finding themselves cut off by the walls of pain that block their every move. The film doesn't make fun of suburban living, but empathizes with its often ironic isolation.
Troche hasn't made much of an impression since her groundbreaking lesbian indie "Go Fish" made waves back in 1994, but in the interim Troche has found a tighter command of her directing skills. "Objects" is exceptionally well made, weaving tricky characters and often absurd situations together with a much needed ease. Troche shies from gimmicks to connect these stories, instead just moving ahead, and letting the situations and character arcs bring the stories together in the end. The picture is steadily engaging, even through Troche's rougher screenplay patches (Mary Kay Place's character gets the shaft when it comes to development). Troche's thematic aspirations are large, but she achieves what she set out to do, and "Safety of Objects" is a fantastic return to the big screen for the writer/director.
Troche's skill also extends to the casting. Blessed with some of the best actors in the business, Troche uses them all wisely. She has a pro (Glenn Close), a staple (Mark Kay Place), an indie boy (Dermot Mulroney), a recently rediscovered pro (Patricia Clarkson), a sexually ambiguous teen (Kristen Stewart, "Panic Room"), a WB star (Joshua Jackson), a couple of promising newcomers (Jessica Campbell and Alex House), indie boy #2 (Timothy Olyphant), and a long dormant favorite of my own (Moira Kelly). Though asked to perform some pretty outlandish things (most of Alex House's scene are performed opposite a Barbie doll), the talent is game and they are pitch-perfect in their roles.
The dramatic penetration might not be deep enough to provide a truly enriching experience, but "The Safety of Objects" is so gracefully filmed I doubt most will bother to voice any opposition. This is a great film, made all the better by its stance of keeping the inhabitants of suburbia real flesh and blood people, and not targets for cinematic humiliation.
Filmfodder Grade: A-