Take one look at the purity of a magically light, bright and ethereal fountain scene in AT MIDDLETON and you immediately know how love feels, or should feel; how bliss and joy feel, or should feel. Take one look at Andy Garcia’s face in the car or hear the sweet sadness in his voice as his character George and son Conrad “take the long way home” so the beauty of a day can linger a bit longer and that also tells you not only how love and bliss feel, but also heartbreak. One look at the wisp of the hair of Vera Farmiga’s Edith falling softly on her face after laughing at the stoic propriety of Garcia’s bow-tied George try and ride a bicycle, and you know what love is. But what you also know is how life is. AT MIDDLETON is a love story for the mature audience and a life lesson for everyone.
Cardiac surgeon George Hartman has been planning this day for 18 years - the day when he takes his son to look at a college campus. Buttoned-up and straight-laced, George is the picture of Brooks Brothers, old money, propriety in his khaki pants, navy blazer and ever present bow tie (tied, mind you; not clip on). His posture is perfect, his questions and manners flawless. His son Conrad on the other hand, has about as much interest in checking out small town, remote, Middleton College as George has in going to a heavy metal concert.
Edith Martin is a free-spirited will-o-the-wisp who only wants her daughter Audrey to experience life and not be so serious. Audrey is hell bent and determined to go to Middleton as not only is Middleton the only school for her, it has the best linguistics professor in the country, someone she plans to dazzle with her smarts and stubbornness and force him to take her on as his student even though she would only be a freshman. Audrey is gung-ho, single-minded and focused, oblivious to the world and all its possibilities.
As parents and students from all walks of life arrive at Middleton for the obligatory parent-child tour, one thing seems clear - did Audrey and Conrad get switched at birth as each clearly belongs with the other parent. No, they did not, but they couldn’t be any more different than their respective parents if they tried. The one commonality that the kids share, however, is the obligatory embarrassment by their parents who each ask bizarre questions and make inappropriate remarks to the tour guide. And the more embarrassing each parent is, the more it annoys the other and the more the electricity sparks between them.
It doesn’t take long before George and Edith ditch the tour and head out on their own - of course, at the urging and insistence of Edith to be spontaneous and free. What happens, however, is pure magic as each starts to remember what it means to be young, alive, unencumbered, with the future at your feet and the world as your oyster. But that also brings a sobering tinge of melancholy when the facade of each of their lives is broken and they must admit the failures and flaws of themselves and the lives for which they settled. As they say, however, the truth will set you free and it’s with that new freedom that we see love blossom and opposites attract as George and Edith “meet at middleton” where they can just “be” with each other. But, what happens when the day ends and they must reunite with their kids and head back to their lives?
And while George and Edith are out finding themselves and growing up, Conrad and Audrey are doing the same thanks to the sage wisdom college radio station DJ, Boneyard Slim, and the idol of Audrey’s eyes, Professor Emerson. Is the partying life of a big town and big school really what Conrad wants? Can Audrey even survive under the pressure of her extreme Type A personality before imploding? College, you see, is a place where education and learning never ends. No matter what your age or station in life.
Vera Farmiga positively glows with a free-spirited lightness that, while honest and pure as Edith’s relationship with George grows and intensifies, also masks the pain and hurt of a life that she “settled for”. Farmiga finds a wonderful balance between truth and pain, resulting in a performance screams honesty with every breathe, every smile, every glance. As Edith, Farmiga is the perfect yin to Andy Garcia’s yang. Their chemistry is nothing short of magic.
Andy Garcia is a delight as stuffed shirt George. With the Brooks Brothers preppie look and that bow tie, you can’t help but grin and snicker, especially with the straight-arrow, old monied propriety that Garcia brings to George. The bicycle scene is hysterical as is his hunched over climb up the bell tower the first time. While we know Garcia can be funny, we can now add physical comedy to one of the tools in his toolbox. He blossoms and grows, loosens his tie and explodes with a freeing demeanor that is refreshing and light, a perfect contrast to the staid and stoic George we first meet. By film’s end, Garcia is beyond irresistible.
What is most telling with the performances of Farmiga and Garcia is the pure, raw emotion they lay on the table. They let us into the heads and hearts of each character. They let us feel what they are feeling, when they are feeling it. We are never pushed away or treated as outsiders or lookee-loos. It’s a very delicate dance that not many actors can achieve, let alone this effectively.
Tom Skerritt and Peter Riegert may have limited screen time but the roles as Professor Emerson and Boneyard Slim, respectively, are crucial to the story as they prove to be seminal moments of learning and discovery for Conrad and Audrey who have taken a backseat to the storyline of their parents. Actors like Riegert and Skerritt are essential to play these roles as just their appearance on screen, with the depth and breadth of their work serving as touchstones to us all, immediately sets the tone of the character - teacher, mentor, life lesson.
As Audrey, Taissa Farmiga soars with rigidity and ultimately a questioning of self. Wonderful emotional transformation of character that Taissa also imbues through her physical presence. Beyond believability is the mother-daughter relationship between Edith and Audrey and that is due completely to the real life big sister-little sister dynamic of Vera and Taissa. With 21 years between them, Vera has always played a mothering role in Taissa’s life, which is perfect for AT MIDDLETON.
Relative newcomer Spencer Lofrancro is a welcome surprise and handily fills the shoes of Conrad. Making AT MIDDLETON a true family affair, however, is Garcia’s daughter Daniella Garcia who, as cinema student Daphne, aids in the education of George and Edith, albeit getting high smoking a bong in her dorm room together with Daphne’s roommate Travis, played by Stephen Borrello, Garcia’s real life boyfriend. The blend of generational casting is absolutely superb.
From story to casting to lensing and everything in between, AT MIDDLETON belies this being Adam Rogers’ first feature debut as a director. There is a lightness and openness to the film that is welcoming, never weighing on you, as the hidden sorrows of life weigh on Edith and George or as the pressures of impending college weigh on Conrad and Audrey. An effective contrast that only helps make the film even more engaging.
The script by Rogers and Glenn German is a delight. While tackling some of the tough questions in life, and never providing easy answers, the story wafts over you like a summer breeze. You just want to throw your head back, close your eyes and let it bathe you with a blissful glow. As veterans Farmiga and Garcia unequivocally state, the beauty of AT MIDDLETON, the strength of the characters, “is all on the page.” The characters are true to themselves and true to life. And everyone is a mentor or teacher to everyone else. It’s a delightful dance that couldn’t be more appropriately set than a place of learning. Everybody learns something about themselves by film’s end.....which is the purpose in going to college - to grow, spread your wings and fly. And this includes the adults.
While the “opposites attract”, fire & ice theme, is a standard narrative trope, what takes it away from being “run of the mill” are the wacky, teen-aged-like pranks that Edith and George pull. (Stealing bicycles, sneaking into the campus bell tower, playful antics in the theater props department, etc.) For those of us in the Edith and George age bracket, it immediately fills you with a warmth and golden glow of days gone by and reminds us that we too, can still be young at heart.
Appreciative with the story construct is that while Conrad and Audrey may be backseat drivers, they reach their destinations along with the parents. Life plays out for everyone in the course of this day with resolution to the immediate problems, leaving everyone with the promise of hope and what is yet to come.
A real surprise is that the film isn’t wrapped up with a happily ever after bow. The ending is sweet poignance that is true to life. And yes, ladies, bring tissues. At film’s end, Andy Garcia will have you weeping.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh dazzles with lightness and metaphoric play with his light and lensing. His use of sun flares is stunning, magical and beautiful, dazzling us with metaphor. Similarly, the first hike up the bell tower by Edith and George, camera angle POV dutching upward is a marvelous metaphor for the long climb through life, the struggle to reach the top , but also, concurrently reflects the idea of one’s head in the cloud, a dreamer, always looking up. That one scene is the visual statement for Edith and George. And I have to say, the celebration of the spaciousness of the green-treed rambling campus(es) (lensed on both Gonzaga and Washington State and melded together as “Middleton”) and beauty of the red brick and truly collegial atmosphere should make everyone sigh and want to matriculate. Notable is that Kadosh generally frames wide (akin to big wide world out there) or with mid shots, and with the mid-shots, when it comes to Andy and Vera, you can see the camera incrementally close in tighter on them as the film progresses, creating an intimacy to mirror what’s happening with George and Edith. Excellent technique and design by Kadosh and Rodgers.
But then there’s that fountain sequence. Light, fresh, crystal clear. Dissolves and slo-mo are almost ethereal. The joy of Edith and George is palpable without words. The money shots of the film are that fountain sequence.
The icing on the cake is Arturo Sandoval’s score - wistfully melancholy at the end but filled with lilting notes and thematic emotional tone throughout the film. This is truly a beautiful composition that has a lyricism and flow that buoys the film, it travels hand in hand, never leading, never following, but gracefully moving in tandem. Sandoval is masterful with the scoring, developing thematic notes for not only each character, but each emotion, and then using specific instrumentation as a keynote for each. The result is transportive. This is a score that I could listen to for days on end and never tire of.
Much like the Linkater/Delpy/Hawke “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy, Edith and George are characters you don’t want to see end. You don’t want to see the story end. Now that they’ve found each other, you don’t want to see them disappear. You want to revisit them, you want to see and know what happens to them and their lives after this day AT MIDDLETON. Kudos to Rodgers and German and the powerful performances of Farmiga and Garcia for making us care about these people and invest our own emotions in their journey, their hearts.
Now that we’ve matriculated and “graduated” AT MIDDLETON, let’s go back for our Masters.
Directed by Adam Rodgers
Written by Rodgers and Glenn German
Cast: Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga, Peter Riegert, Tom Skerritt