I’ve written earlier about how I may choose a movie for relatively shallow reasons (i.e., I saw Superbad for the sheer cuteness of Michael Cera), and I have to admit that initially I was drawn to Dan Harris’s Imaginary Heroes simply because young lead Emile Hirsch is incredibly hot. It was only later, after having watched the movie bits and pieces a total of three times, that I realized it’s also an absolutely excellent film about the hardships of a family trying to get through a personal tragedy.
Its somewhat cynical tone brings an immediate quoteability to the sardonic comedy, but luckily it never comes across as shallow or forced. My sudden need to recite the full first 20 minutes stems only in part from the impressively well-written script. A more cynical critic than myself could charge that Harris is heaping all sorts of tragic events and dysfunctional personality traits onto his characters (the suicide of the older brother; both teen and parental drug use; depression; a less than loving father-son relationship), but it’s all acted out in such a convincingly somber tone that it only heightens the emotional effect.
The film in many ways reminds me of Burr Steers’s absolutely magnificent 2002 debut Igby Goes Down, which by all means is to be considered a compliment. Both films evolve around young and independent-minded guys (Hirsch and Kieran Culkin, respectively), whose fathers have retreated into depression due to a sense of personal failure (Bill Pullman and Jeff Daniels, respectively). At the center of their respective families stand two strong and sometimes cynical mothers, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver (not a stranger to films about dysfunctional families, see Ang Lee’s fine adaptation of The Ice Storm) in Imaginary Heroes, and by the always reliable Susan Sarandon in Igby. Both films deserve high praise for seamlessly combining a sharp tone with the unsentimental but thoughtful treatment they give the families’ traumas.
To return to the opening point of this post, I don’t regret giving in to my physical attraction to Hirsch and give the moving a shot. Unlike what came out of sitting through the unbearable Girl Next Door for a dark glimpse of his naked frame and hairy chest, this film actually stimulated me intellectually along the way. I’m not saying the fact that Hirsch share a gay kiss with his boyish co-star Ryan Donowho (of The O.C. fame) didn’t at all contribute to my positive assessment of the film, but I ask to be believed when I say it played a small part. Young Leonardos such as Hirsch will never drag a movie down, but only a script this rich and moving will lift them all the way up.