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Imaginary Heroes

Uneven ambitious tragicomedy about suburban survival

It would be all too easy to dismiss Imaginary Heroes as a rehash of other tales about upscale dysfunctional families such as Ordinary People or The Ice Storm, to which writer-director Dan Harris's directorial debut bears more than a passing resemblance. What Harris lacks in originality, however, he makes up for in his narrative treatment and his choice of actors, whose superb and nuanced performances carry the film even when it loses itself in awkward pathos and clichés.

Imaginary Heroes chronicles the engrossing emotional life the Travis family following the unexpected suicide of their oldest son, Matt (Kip Pardue). The family members try to cope with the tragedy in their own private ways. Mom Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) drowns her sorrow in booze and pot while entertaining the idea of having a fling with a young man not much older than Matt. Dad Ben (Jeff Daniels) becomes a complete recluse who refuses to accept his son's death and insists that his wife continues to set the dinner table for Matt. And Tim (Emile Hirsch), the alienated teen who feels he doesn't fit in with his family, discovers that even after Matt's death, he still has to live in the shadow of his more revered brother and endure the verbal abuse of his father.

While clearly the work of a filmmaker of promise, Imaginary Heroes is not without its flaws. Harris's ambitious script is laced with so many episodic shifts of tone, subplots, and startling revelations, which, while furthering the narrative, create what ultimately amounts to little more than a patchwork of messy emotions among shifting family dynamics instead of a film with a strong identity of its own.

As far as characters go, the script is dead-on in its depiction of suburban teenage angst, but it delivers little more than sketches of the angst-ridden interiors of his adult characters. Luckily, both Weaver and Daniels are terrific in filling in the contours of their characters. The real standout of the film, however, is Hirsch who ably embodies the much-picked-on surviving son faced with high-school torment, sexual confusion, and conflicting emotions for his parents.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5