Imaginary Heroes is another family dysfunction drama that one is tempted to write-off as a crass and cynical exercise in American Beauty-style, upper-middle-class self-pity. However, the film’s persistently downbeat tone, a great performance from Sigourney Weaver and some nice surprises suggest that there might be more here than meets the eye, or at least an interesting two hours in the dark.
In the middle of a timeless, squeaky-clean suburban world, Sandy (Weaver) and Ben (Jeff Daniels) spiral out of control when their living trophy of a son Matt commits suicide. Ben becomes virtually mute, skulking around and growing increasingly bitter toward his surviving family members. Sandy takes the opposite route, saying and doing everything she pleases regardless of the consequences: She becomes a near-nihilistic crusader against hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Tim (Emile Hirsch) is caught in the middle. He is the weakling, a disappointment, the unheroic son who comes of age as so many movie characters do; with drugs, bisexual trysts and community service. Sandy and Tim’s tight but fraught mother/son relationship forms the emotional core of the film; it will certainly ring true for many queer boy viewers.
The film’s humour is relentlessly dark, with the violently candid Weaver as Sandy satirizing her role in Ang Lee’s more restrained weepie The Ice Storm. Sandy becomes a caricature of a badass, nothing-sacred mama and she knows it. Similarly, the film becomes more surreal, self-conscious and even arbitrary as it goes on, tragedy and comedy, convention and invention always in equal measure. What is the glorious New York drag cabaret act Kiki And Herb doing here singing one of their fabulous carols at a middle-America Christmas party?
Whatever you think of the film’s bluntly hateful barbs and dismal outlook – young director Dan Harris (screenwriter on the X-Men franchise) shares the teen-angst worldview of Darlene from Roseanne – there are some pleasantly startling and strange moments here.
In other words, even though the script might heap on the negativity and drama as if this were the first “there’s something wrong behind the white picket fence” film ever made, Harris breathes enough life into it to keep you happy.