A Picture of You (2014)
Jo Mei, Andrew Pang, Teyonah Parris, Lucas Dixon, Jodi Long. Directed by J.P. Chan. Written by J.P. Chan and Jo Mei.
Kyle and Jen have just lost their mother, and now they are in her rural Pennsylvania house to pack away her things. It says something that neither calls the other by name through the first half of the film, both opting for, “Hey,” which is also the extent of most of their early conversations. They clearly do not get along, and so the grieving process, stoked by the act of going through their mother’s belongings, is a lonely experience for both.
Add to this the fact that one of the siblings took care of their ill mother in the time leading to her death, while the other stayed away out of fear, and the resentment and guilt Kyle and Jen must sift through are as layered as the belongings they pull out of drawers and off shelves.
It probably sounds like several films you’ve seen or novels you’ve read, especially when the siblings discover something surprising in their mother’s computer. But this isn’t a movie about uncovering the secrets of a family’s past, though the characters do find themselves chasing down information and details in an almost screwball sequence in the final act. What makes A Picture of You worth its eighty-two minutes is that it spends its time first keeping its characters kind of mysterious, and then slowly getting us to care about them and their relationship with each other. When two of Jen’s friends show up at the house to help with the cleanup, I expected them to be a distraction from the good Kyle-Jen stuff, but they actually help it along, bringing an element of humor that had mostly been absent.
I laughed aloud multiple times, mostly at awkward interactions and silly-but-fitting conversations. There were a couple of moments where I thought, “Oh, no. Not this tired plot device,” but even this film’s direction down overly trodden movie territory is pretty enjoyable. I normally hate marijuana-as-bonding moments in movies, yet here I thought the scene was fun and effective.
The lighting in this film is noticeably well-done, and my appreciation for it is heightened by what feels like a conscious avoidance of soundtrack music (something I admit I am hypersensitive about). Moments are allowed to play out, quietly, paced by the thoughts of characters we are still getting to know, so we take time, while they think about what to say or do next, to notice the slant of sunlight dividing a room in half, or the pattern of shadows made by the forest canopy overhead. I was pleased to discover that the cinematographer is Andrew Reed, who did Quiet City and Cold Weather, two movies whose production I admire.
The acting is at times clunky and at times just right. Andrew Pang as Kyle does a good job of keeping us from seeing, for the first half of the movie, anything to connect with, and sometimes it works well and sometimes it feels like his character’s gestures and mannerisms are from some place far away and long ago. Jo Mei plays Jen as sulky, grouchy, and demanding. When she’s with just Kyle, it’s tough to like her, but in the company of friends or while jogging along around the lake, she seems much more like good people, adding an endearing, bossy physicality that gives the group of characters its center. Teyonah Parris and Lucas Dixon as Jen’s friends bring life to the grouchy siblings, reminding me of a young Rosario Dawson and younger Seth Rogen. Jodi Long, seen only in flashback as the deceased mother, is just beautiful, and viewers familiar only with her role on Sullivan & Son will be in for a little surprise.
I have a friend who has seen so many indie movies that it’s nearly impossible to please him when the indie aesthetic is applied. There are shaky handheld camera moments here that don’t seem to serve any meaningful purpose except to remind you that you’re seeing an indie picture, for example, and I can see how many of lighting decisions might be seen similarly. Such viewers may find not much to love in A Picture of You, but those who appreciate film characters behaving like real people will likely be impressed. Count me among the latter.
8/10 (above average, for good character development, great lighting, and excellent pacing that somehow takes its time and still manages to satisfy at shorter than 90 minutes of runtime)
A Picture of You is playing in theaters. Its release for Video on Demand is October 7.