Ever since Peter Jackson’s true-crime drama “Heavenly Creatures” in 1994, Melanie Lynskey has been an actress to watch. On screen, both big and small, she’s popped up in supporting roles and has always etched them with a specific indelibility, and now she’s finally been given her due in another lead role.
In the small, winningly gentle “Hello I Must Be Going,” the lovely, criminally underrated actress is a joy in playing Amy Minsky, a thirtysomething photographer who’s having a really hard time. Walking out on her self-absorbed husband (Dan Futterman) a few months ago for catching him having an affair with her best friend, she’s depressed and back to living with her parents, Ruth (Blythe Danner) and Stan (John Rubinstein). Sleeping until noon, laying around in the same shabby T-shirt, and not leaving the house has become Amy’s recent routine. Mom is losing her patience and Dad has an upcoming dinner with a client (Damian Young) before retiring, leaving his law firm to his son, and taking his wife on a round-the-world vacation. At dinner, Amy meets Larry’s mature 19-year-old actor stepson, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s “Girls”), who wants to be there even less than her and makes a pass at her. Once she’s asked by Jeremy’s mother, Gwen (Julie White), to take him around the quaint Connecticutt town, their torrid “The Graduate”/May-December affair begins. Even if it takes both of their parents a while to realize what’s going on, Amy and Jeremy seem to bring out the best in each other.
At first blush, “Hello I Must Be Going” could have been either a sad-sack bummer or yet another quirky life-crisis indie about someone in a funk figuring out their next step. The film has an easy-listening soundtrack right out of a coffeehouse, and already has enough in common with this year’s “Liberal Arts” in that they’re both about a thirtysomething getting involved with a 19-year-old, only with the genders reversed. Luckily, actor-turned-director Todd Louiso’s third feature walks a delicate tightrope between bittersweet emotions and a little character-based slapstick with enough grace and wit. It’s lightly plotted and not stylistically inventive filmmaking, but satisfyingly skilled.
In her acutely observed inaugural script, screenwriter Sarah Koskoff dodges condescension, as long as we’re talking about Amy and Jeremy, who are treated with the utmost compassion. Through Lynskey, Amy ingratiates herself to the viewer as an empathetic, understandable protagonist that we don’t mind spending time with for an hour and a half. Your heart aches for her; she’s vulnerable but not as mopey as her mother perceives, and she makes frumpy the new sexy. Every now and then Lynskey adds self-deprecating humor and surprise to the character in terms of body language and facial expressions, making Amy that much sweeter. Finally, in a climactic meeting scene with Futterman, we get a real sense of Amy’s complete arc.
Though certainly the anchor, Lynskey is not the only one that gets to shine: Abbott, charming but sensitive, gives a deft performance that makes us buy he’s genuinely attracted and interested in the older Amy. Danner, who’s always a dear in any mom role she takes but usually underutilized, brings a prickly humor, inner longing, and tough love to Ruth. The last few mother-daughter moments are written and acted with such piercing truth and tender sadness, in which Mom lets out all her rage about how Amy never finishes anything she starts and then comes clean about how she just wants to spend time with her husband. Same goes for Rubinstein, who tries giving the best advice he can to Amy and reminisces about the Groucho Marx-starrer “Animal Crackers” (with a song that gives this film its title) they’d stay up late to watch. Also, White, as Jeremy’s pushy therapist mom who’s proud of her son but just too oblivious in assuming he’s gay, is always a comedic treat and makes the character feel like a real person.
For some reason, the relationship between Amy and her mother ends up reaching a more substantive and moving than the affair with Jeremy. Still, “Hello I Must Be Going” is smart, emotionally true and, above all else, a superb showcase for Lynskey if there ever was one.
95 min., rated R.
Grade: B +