out of Five
Running time: 110
With a sharp script and strong performances, this is an intense emotional drama that piles on the misery until you’re ready to beg for mercy.
Imaginary Heroes is the debut feature by writer-director Dan Harris. Judging by its content, it’s probably fair to say that Harris isn’t the most cheerful of people, but the film features strong performances and has a sharply-written script.
Emile Hirsch (from The Girl Next Door) stars as Tim Travis, a troubled teenager whose family life shatters after the suicide of his swimming champ brother Matt (Kip Pardue). His father, Ben (Jeff Daniels) is devastated and makes no secret of the fact that Matt was the only one he really cared about; he even continues to cook food and set a table place for his dead son.
Meanwhile, Tim’s mother, Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) takes to smoking pot and pissing off as many people as possible with well-aimed sarcastic comments, while his sister Penny (Michelle Williams, playing her second underwritten sister in two weeks) escapes the worst of it by virtue of not living at home.
Tim seeks support in his friends, but he’s not sure if he really loves his sweet girlfriend Steph (Suzanne Santo) and his best friend Kyle (Ryan Donowho) keeps getting into trouble with the cops. Then there’s the small matter of the school bully, Tim’s mysterious bruises and several family secrets that are just waiting to be uncovered…
Imaginary Heroes is vaguely reminiscent of The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s dysfunctional family drama that coincidentally also featured Sigourney Weaver. It’s an incredibly bleak film that touches on a wide range of themes, including drugs, teenage sex, suicide, infidelity, bullying, jealousy and so on.
It’s also the sort of film where just as it looks as if things are going to wrap themselves up, someone’s diagnosed with a serious illness. (It’s not hard to spot which one as they helpfully provide a Cough Of Death for most of the film). That said, the bleakness is leavened with the judicious application of some genuinely witty dialogue and a number of memorable off-the-wall moments, such as Tim getting punched out by a pensioner.
The performances are excellent. Hirsch is a likeable actor and his character remains sympathetic even when he’s horrible to his girlfriend, or when we correctly suspect that he’s hiding something in relation to Matt’s suicide. Daniels is good too – it’s unusual and faintly disturbing to see Jeff Daniels play such an unlikeable character. The scene where he talks to Sandy about plastic surgery is devastating.
However, the film rightfully belongs to Sigourney Weaver, who gets most of the best lines – her parting shot after being arrested for trying to buy drugs is a particular highlight. There’s also strong support from the likes of Suzanne Santo and Jay Paulson as Vern, a suicidal friend of Tim’s, who comes onto Sandy at the supermarket checkout before ending up with Penny; their initial flirting conversation is very funny.
In short, Imaginary Heroes takes a long time to reach its ultimately satisfying conclusion and you may well have tired of the relentless misery by the time you get there. However, it’s worth seeing for its performances and for the sharp moments of humour in amongst the bleakness. If Harris lightens up a bit for his next film he’ll be an interesting talent to watch.