August 30, 2011
Review - " 3 Backyards " - (on DVD) By Roland Hansen
For comments or to submit a movie review for possible inclusion on Delta Films site
please send an email to Critics@deltafilms.net
Directed by: Eric Mendelsohn
Starring: Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Rachel
Resheff, Wesley Broulik, Kathryn Erbe, Danai Gurira, Anna Arvia,
Randi Kaplan, Pam La Testa, Sandor Tecsy, Peyton R. List
I don't review every film I catch on DVD. I tend to do the highs
(Barbey's Version, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend) and the lows (2012: Ice
Age, Death at a funeral - the US remake not the wonderful Brit
original). I chose to review the more 'middle-of-the-road' 3 Backyards
because I had such high expectations for it. It boasts of a phenominal
cast, Sundance award winner, such high praise from reviewers - I
could hardly wait until it came out so I could finally see it. Some
movies have willfully obscure and oblique narratives and yet their
mysteriousness fascinates. 3 Backyards, despite pretensions to the
contrary, is not one of those films.
In 3 Backyards, writer-director Eric Mendelsohn presents a
fragmentary drama about one day in the life of a cast of characters
linked only by where they live. Set and shot on Long Island, New
York, the film follows John (Elias Koteas), Peggy (Edie Falco), and
Christina (Rachel Resheff) through their respective courses on the
John and Peggy are recognizable types. He is the emotionally
withdrawn businessman, husband, and father, while she is the
housewife who wiles her time away in “creative” pursuits, painting
landscapes, and gossiping.
John (Elias Koteas) is a glum business man
leaving for the airport on a routine company
assignment, and also departing from a
mutually acknowledged fading marriage. At
the airport he is informed that the flight is
rescheduled for the following day. John
returns to do secret spy on his family while
pretending he's already in flight, to uncover
through the windows imagined deceptions
when he's not around.
John repeatedly catches glimpses of an
African immigrant (Danai Gurira), designated
here solely as 'Woman In Blue' who beams
with pride despite humiliations while
desperately seeking a menial job, any job, in
the surrounding area. An eventual tragic
encounter which substantially alters what's
meaningful in the disgruntled family man's life.
encounters a poodle, which the audience
already knows has been reported lost, and
who Christina sets free. Then she encounters
a man in a shed masturbating to a magazine.
Not really understanding what she sees,
Christina does notice a collection of dog
collars in the shed and tries to tell the man
that she found “his dog”, before running off
and losing the bracelet in the yard. The little
girl, played brilliantly by newcomer Rachel
Resheff, depicts how a certain human action
is seen through the innocent eyes of a child.
Nothing much happens in the story, but I
found it really fascinating - and creepy.
Christina is the most unique of the three characters; she’s a dreamy school girl whose day starts with her stealing away with
her mom’s birthday present, a bracelet, and missing the school bus. This forces her to walk to school, which she does with
pleasure, happily cutting through open spaces and yards. Eventually, she stumbles into a backyard where she first
Finally, in the most dramatically intense tale, of a middle aged housewife Peggy (Edie Falco) has been gossiping like a high
schooler all morning with her girlfriend neighbor through their respective backyard windows. It seems that an aloof movie
star (Embeth Davidtz), holed up in a nearby home for the summer, has asked Peggy, whose existence she's never
acknowledged, to drive her to the ferry.
The trip is excruciatingly awkward as Peggy's
embarrassing overtures aim to establish an
impossible emotional intimacy. And while the
unnamed actress refuses to allow her
neighbor to function as anything more than a
chauffeur, Peggy frantic bid to befriend her
idol. Peggy ultimately fails at making a
connection with the actress, overwhelming
the other woman with her own neediness,
Eric Mendelsohn takes a meandering look at
suburban angst that is more of a sideways
glance. Nothing ever happens, and although
the stories in 3 Backyards intercut and overlap, they never connect, making it hard for them to sustain interest. The acting
is flawless, especially by Edie Falco, who spends the whole movie behind a steering wheel, and the excellent Embeth
Davidtz, as her passenger. But as good as they are, they never get beneath the surface of facial emotions. My mind kept
wandering. Shot on a shoestring budget, with no setting more elaborate than a neighborhood coffee shop, the movie makes
the rather mundane point that the grass is never greener than in your own backyard. In the end, the three characters share
one thing in common–their lives don’t seem as bleak at the end of the day as they did at the beginning.
Despite its failings 3 Backyards does weave a fairly mesmerising spell, if you allow it. Amongst the wreckage there are some
sequences that linger long in the imagination and no other filmmaker would have likely developed. A sequence in which
John communicates with his wife and daughter whilst, unknown to them, standing a walls width away, is remarkable just for
the condensed range of emotions it manages to convey, as if seeing someone eulogising their own life to their loved ones.
Another moment that has persisted in my imagination, since viewing the movie, is to do with the strange young man who
Christina stumbles upon. When Christina returns to find her bracelet there is a wonderfully disorienting bit of dialogue
barked off camera, that allows you to realise that somewhere this young man has a father oblivious to what he is doing. The
way in which Mendelsohn evokes a strong childlike perspective during Christina’s parts of the movie, so that the most
mundane of things suddenly take on an element of wonder, or danger, is quite fascinating. Whilst the encounter with the
imposing physical form of the young man, is made all the more unsettling and enticing, by the inability to make out his face,
obscured by darkness and the dazzle of the sunlight.
They don't make many films like 3 Backyards because, frankly, audiences have been weaned away from them. Modern
moviegoers have been trained to expect certain things from the movie-going experience and their attention span for a
movie that forces them to actually think about what they're seeing and arrive at their own interpretation is virtually
nonexistent. It's a movie that raises more questions than it answers, which offers a peek into a world you may not have seen
- and which never explains just what it is you're seeing.
If I made it sound terrible - it isn't. It's just sort of "there" - not good, not bad, just there. Unless you really like artsy films you
should give 3 Backyards a pass.