Mythology plays a key role in Meg Ryan’s directorial debut, the Capra-esque drama, “Ithaca”, which made its anticipated world premiere tonight at the Middleburg Film Festival. In Homer’s “Odyssey”, Ithaca is the home Ulysses leaves and eventually must make his dangerous, near-impossible journey back to after the Trojan War. No coincidence two of the film’s central characters are named Ulysses and Homer, and the overly-sentimental message at heart is one of going back to a home one no longer recognizes. While Ryan takes great pains to recapture the idealistic tone of WWII America, inexperience behind the camera and a muddled, simplistic screenplay are constant hurdles.
To be fair, the films of Capra and many others like him at the time were thematically simple and completely free of cynicism. They were meant to inspire, to reflect some heroic ideal, but Ithaca can never settle on what it actually intends to be about. Is it an antiwar film? A coming-of-age story? A deconstruction of a time often exemplified as one of togetherness and self-sacrifice? The answer is that it’s a little of all those things, and yet none of those ideas comes through satisfactorily.
Set in the 1940s in the small town of Ithaca, the story centers on the life education of Homer (Alex Neustaedter), whose idyllic, Rockwellian childhood has sheltered him from the wars raging around the world. His view broadens thanks to the letters sent home by his older brother, Marcus (Ryan’s son, Jack Quaid), who informs him on the pointless nature of war and a desire to see it end everywhere. The death of their father (Tom Hanks, seen only in a couple of scenes) has made Homer the man of the house; the only one who can provide for his rudderless mother (Ryan), sister Bess (Christine Nelson), and precocious younger brother, Ulysses. So he takes up becoming a telegram delivery boy, working alongside surly, drunken telegraph operator Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard) and watchful boss, Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater).
Moving at the speed of growing grass, not much happens in Ithaca, and thus not much happens to Homer. And yet his perspective on life in his hometown shifts considerably darker, becoming more disillusioned as time goes on. Some of it can be attributed to the letters from his brother, and the growing sense that he may die for some unknowable cause. The others are the death notices from the military that he’s forced to deliver in his new job, exacerbated by Homer’s laughable inability to simply deliver the messages and leave. Instead, he’s brought inside to literally read the letters aloud to one lady, while in another instance he’s delivering the bad news during a birthday party. Another problem is the combination of Erik Jendressen’s on-the-nose screenplay, adapted from William Saroyan’s novel “The Human Comedy”, and Ryan’s equally obvious direction. Between the two of them there’s a tug of war between Homer’s stilted dialogue (“I’ll spit at the world if he dies!”) and overdone expressions of emotion, such as when he literally spits at the world soon after. Ryan can’t do anything about the script, but learning to get the best out of her actors will come with more experience. Pros like Shepard and Linklater handle themselves well, especially Shepard as the wizened old drunkard who takes on a mentorship role for Homer at a time when he desperately needs it.
Shot largely in Richmond, VA on a tight budget, the limitations only come through in the war scenes, while the rest is genuinely homey and comforting, aided by a string-heavy score by John Mellancamp that sets the appropriately melancholic mood. We never see these changes in his town that Homer keeps alluding to, despite his insistence that they are happening. His mother tells him it’s all just a part of growing up, and maybe that’s true. But it doesn’t help us understand what he’s going through or, ultimately, what “Ithaca” is trying to say about anything.