Posted by Nick Ondras on October 10, 2010 at 6:42 pm
Life is both an easy and difficult thing to capture in any form or medium, and film documentation is probably the trickiest to handle. Usually when filmmakers find one core narrative doesn’t properly transcribe their primal message they take to divvying up the pot, tossing in intertwining stories that generally lead to an interesting climax. 3 Backyards, written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn, sort of falls into the general clichés of these views, the kind I always refer back to a movie I greatly adore, Punch-Drunk Love. Though it’s treated as fresh stuff, and mixes the pot in evocative ways. From the moment it started, and one could relate Mendelsohn to Paul Thomas Anderson for this, the oddity and weirdness let their flags fly, and I couldn’t for the life of me stop watching to see where in hell this was leading me on to.
The movie follows sectors of the lives of three people: John (Elias Koteas), a man who isolates himself from his family though without an output to look to, Christina (Rachel Resheff, who stares characters down with her eyes that speak more than her words), an elementary school girl whose stealing her mother’s birthday present ignites a sexual and misleading travel, and Peggy (Edie Falco, who also starred in Mendelsohn’s only other feature, 1999’s Judy Berlin), put upon with the task of driving an actress (Californication’s Embeth Davidtz) to the ferry. The slow beat of 3 Backyards is maddening; it’s episodic yet parallel. There’s no finale where these three stories come together, but their individual realities seem to mesh and form one. It’s mean without being gritty, and says a lot without showing too much. Questions are raised that aren’t answered; characters cry (both internally and externally), and the notion of the big term “life” comes into play. 3 Backyards handles that theme without throwing it back in its characters’ faces, or in ours, and our patience is greeted with…well, not much of anything.
Mendelsohn’s directing, shot with a RED digital camera for $300,000, is worth noting for its way of highlighting screen players in busy settings with numerous others in the same shot. The facial expressions of Koteas, Resheff and Falco are all that propels 3 Backyards forward, when it comes down to it. Dialouge is rare but they’re skilled enough to pull it off, to mixed results. The film is about, ironically, the power of talking; letting someone know you’re there or stepping away to show sympathy toward that person. John, Christina and Peggy seem to endlessly waltz through 3 Backyards, picking up on problems they needn’t be involved with.
If the movie were just a bit longer I feel it could have better stood its own and gave dignity to more than a projection screen, which is why I wouldn’t quite compare it too much with Punch-Drunk Love or Requiem for a Dream, which it also vaguely reminded me of. Michael Nicholas’s score is often trite and annoying, granting 3 Backyards a feeling of self-worth when the movie itself had the power to do that all on its own. Still, it’s an interesting ride with Mendelsohn giving traditional sequences (phone calls, diner scenes, etc.) provocative twists. The three narratives don’t speak past their own personal crises, but for a 90-minute movie it feels inaugural in finding its voice.