Six minutes is how long it took me to chuckle, outright laugh AND shed a tear while watching Ash Christian's latest quirky opus to dysfunction, the search for love and the even more vital search for self-acceptance called Petunia.
Opening in New York City on June 28th at Cinema Village, Petunia follows a dysfunctional family of New Yorkers coming to terms with their own misgivings about life, relationships and the unpredictability of love. Unpredictability has practically becoming a defining characteristic of an Ash Christian film, yet it's an unpredictability always filled with authenticity, heart, intelligence and a rather extraordinary transparency.
It was at the age of nineteen that Christian wrote his first feature film, Fat Girls, which premiered to tremendous acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival and was picked up by Regent Entertainment for theatrical and home video distribution. Mangus!, Christian's sophomore effort, grew Christian's darkly comical sensibilities before finding life on home video with Wolfe Releasing after a wildly successful festival run.
Now, Christian presents what may very well be his best film yet with the cynically humorous, honest yet quietly hopeful Petunia. The story weaves together the lives of brothers Adrian (Jimmy Heck), Charlie (Tobias Segal) and Michael (Eddie Kaye Thomas, American Pie films) as they try to unlearn everything their almost psychoanalyst mother (Emmy Award winner Christine Lahti) and father (David Rasche) have taught them.
Christian co-writes the film with Theresa Bennett and together they've created a weaving together of lives where even the ordinarily extraneous stories make sense and truly matter.
Michael is recently married to Vivian (Thora Birch), whose pregnancy creates both personal and family complications. Charlie has his own extraordinary complications with new boyfriend George (Michael Urie). Then, there's Robin (Brittany Snow), whose purpose won't be revealed here but whose presence may very well prove to be the heart-center of a humorous and heartfelt film.
That's the joy of Petunia. Against the backdrop of quirky characters, humorous stories, witty dialogue and familiar yet fantastic dysfunctions Christian manages to create a film where everyone matters in their own special way. It's a film where people show up "as is" and figure out, sometimes painfully so, that showing up "as is" is enough even as they learn to heal, hope and accept themselves and others. Petunia is a beautiful film with beautifully flawed people living out imperfect lives as perfectly as they can.
I loved this film. While I'm not quite prepared to call it a perfect film, perhaps it's most appropriate that I loved its imperfections. The ensemble cast is exceptional across the board with several actors giving their best performance in years. Emmy Award-winning Christine Lahti has been doing fine indie work in recent years, but in Petunia we are really reminded of her ability to take an ordinary character and make them extraordinary. David Rasche shines in a deceptively straightforward performance filled to the brim with subtle layers of emotional complexity, while Eddie Kaye Thomas serves up what is unquestionably his best onscreen performance to date.
It doesn't end there.
Thora Birch manages to make us uncomfortably love Vivian, a woman who uncomfortably loves herself. While Tobias Segal has been around Hollywood for a bit in mostly smaller roles, his turn here as Charlie deserves notice and should have Hollywood knocking on his door. Finally, Brittany Snow takes what could have easily been a throwaway role and turns it into a beautifully manifested and emotionally resonant centerpiece for Petunia, while Jimmy Heck rounds out the core cast with a performance that avoids caricature in portraying what may be the film's most one-dimensional character.
D.P. Austin F. Schmidt lenses the film with warmth and intimacy, while Steve Booke's original music enhances the mood without dominating it. Production credits across the board do a nice job of creating a sense of normalcy even amidst the instability that at times defines these characters' lives.
While Fat Girls may always be the film that defines Ash Christian's filmmaking career, Petunia is the film that proves he's a filmmaker we'll be watching for years to come. With honesty, conviction, humor and insight, Christian and his cast and crew have created what is easily one of summer 2013's best films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic