Dan Harris’ Imaginary Heroes is a flawed but deeply interesting film. He presents a rather depressed worldview—virtually every character is either closed off or hyper emotional in a bizarre compensation for the emptiness of everything. Drugs, sex, and suicide abound, as one might expect from a film directed by a 25-year old. These drug-induced fantasy scenes are among the best in the film, and lead to a positively electric homosexual kiss. The actors have impressive chemistry, and I will almost forgive Emile Hirsch for The Girl Next Door based on his wise decision to play this part of the son trying to survive in a family destroyed by his older brother’s suicide.
As for the negatives (let’s get the less pleasant stuff out of the way): the pacing is off, the imagery is forced (if I saw one more character spin around on the playground equipment I was going to throw something at the screen), and the plot contains one too many neat and tidy surprises. Yet the movie is still on my mind a week later.
So let’s get to the biggest player in the film: Sigourney Weaver, who plays Sandy Travis. Her performance is beautifully understated—no hysterics or over the top moments—just a sly desperation. Harris keeps all of his characters on a tight leash: this is a world of incredible tension, and in those moments when the film slows down, the tension keeps you engaged.
People (you know, those “people” who always seem to have something critical to say) often discuss whether a white author can create a character of color or a male author can write a female voice. So here we have a 25-year-old white male writing the part of a middle-aged woman. Shouldn’t we tar and feather him for his audacity?
I choose to look at the issue from a different perspective. Sure, a man may not know what it is like to have a vagina, but his interpretation of a female character (what she feels, how she chooses to act) can shed light on gender ideas nevertheless. Perhaps we would learn more about how men and women see and treat each other if we weren’t so afraid to describe how we view the “other” (as in other gender but also the ultra-scary “other” of psychoanalytic criticism).
I’ll admit that I was disappointed by the reveal of the source of the anger between Sandy and Marge, the next-door neighbor. Marge never quite forces Sandy to admit her fault, her guilt, or her erroneous self-righteousness. Marge is almost saintly in her willingness to forgive. Interestingly, we see virtually nothing of Marge’s relationship with her son, Kyle, who is our hero Tim’s best friend. Marge becomes little more than a device, and in this moment, Harris fails to reveal much about characters in conflict, much less female friendships.
Still Sandy Travis is a delightful character. Her close friendship with her son Tim may be unrealistic but somehow the idealization is incredibly appealing (Gilmore Girls, anyone?). Do we all yearn for that sort of relationship with our mother, or perhaps do we simply wish we had an adult be that frank with us when we were teenagers? Sandy’s desperate but playful experimentation with marijuana brought humor to the film but also revealed that Sandy is a woman who refuses to take herself too seriously. Incredibly flawed, she relishes her humanity and refuses to apologize for herself.
Her husband, Ben Travis, is quite another character altogether—he wanders in the background of the film, silent, pained, without a clue as to why he should continue living. This character is not well drawn—Harris gives him a gloss but it is Jeff Daniels nuanced performance that brings even the simplest of scenes, like a father asking his son if he needs money, to vibrant life. Redeeming himself in the well-played climactic moment in which Ben claims Tim as his son, Harris endows the character with tremendous potential but simply doesn’t give him the screen time to full develop him.
Perhaps I should mention the daughter, Penny Travis, played by Michelle Williams. Her character’s meager development prompts the question—if Penny is not in the movie, then what does the film lose? She allows Harris to recycle his deus ex machina—a suicide patient who imparts wisdom to Tim, later flirts with Sandy and picks her up from jail, and finally falls in love with Penny (very economic use of a random character, Mr. Harris). Ultimately, Penny herself imparts some wisdom (you guessed it, while spinning around on the playground equipment) to Tim: find what you love most, and hope you are good at it. Not exactly awe-inspiring. Seems safe to say that praise for Harris’ believable writing of female characters suffers when considering Penny’s role in the film.
Quite simply, Harris has an awful lot of people populating the world of this film. There simply isn’t time for him to develop each with the depth that the conflict allows (acknowledging and honoring the tremendous intricacies of the plot). Yet despite all these difficulties, the film has a lot of heart and provides some amazing insight into what it feels like to be completely lost in the world.