Meg Ryan stopped by the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville for a sold-out screening of her directorial debut, Ithaca. Since last month, the actress-director has visited Virginia twice to promote this film adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, beginning with the world premiere in Middleburg. Ithaca was shot in Richmond and Petersburg, cementing those Virginia connections.
The World War II drama opens with fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) riding towards town on his bike. He’s determined to be the best messenger at the local telegraph office. He is hired by Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard) despite being underage. His lofty goal insights perhaps a little envy from his direct supervisor, Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater), who was the previous “Number One” years before.
The three characters form an interesting juxtaposition of the different generations and their views about the world and war. It carries over into the bar scenes as tensions erupt between the young enlisted men and older fellows like Tom. This angle on World War II struck me as a great realistic touch, taking on the feel of the 1940s without falling into simplified patriotism and unity in the film’s portrayal of the citizenry.
Homer lives with his mother (Meg Ryan), sister Bess (Christine Nelson), and younger brother, Ulysses (the adorable Spencer Howell). Homer’s older brother, Marcus (Jack Quaid), sends him letters from the war front. The interactions between the siblings comprise a family connection that I see as the heart of the story. Their heartwarming exchange is best encapsulated by the flashback of Marcus with a younger Homer, layered over with a voiceover of Marcus’s advice on striving to be a good person. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the unfortunate news in the telegrams typed by Grogan and set in Homer’s delivery route.
How does Ryan’s latest cinematic endeavor measure up? It’s rather remarkable what Ryan accomplished in a mere 23 days of shooting. Some critics have stated that the film lacks a bit of focus, but I disagree. The small episodes along the way such as “man or machine” and sending prank telegrams have a bit of whimsy that provide relief from the weight of the more intense scenes. However, the most intriguing scenes are between Mrs. Macauley and the late Mr. Macauley. Couldn’t we have gotten a little more screen time for Tom Hanks? It’s never fully explained why he’s around and why Mrs. Macauley is the only one who sees him. Nonetheless, there’s an on-screen dynamic that beautifully captures Mrs. Macauley’s grief.
The camera work in Ithaca is generally artistic and informative, except perhaps for what appears to be faulty crosscutting in one or two sequences. Strong shadows and shots from a very low angle effectively capture Homer’s discomfort and fears, depicting telegram deliveries as seemingly insurmountable challenges for him. They represent a much different type of hurdle race for Homer to run: one that we can all laugh at, cry through, and learn from by its end.
This article was originally published on Blogcritics.org under the same title.