by Eric Mendelsohn
Runtime: 85 min.
Even the title of 3 Backyards, along with its flute-accented score by Michael
Nicholas, recalls Robert Altman’s 3 Women
(1977), because director-writer Eric Mendelsohn is not afraid of movie poetry.
Unlike those indie directors whose feel-good, P.C. claptrap predictably gets
praised by the very people it flatters, Mendelsohn makes suburban poetry that
opposes the way middle-class film culture likes to fantasize itself. 3 Backyards steps away from “realistic”
indie convention and (as in Altman’s most oblique film) dares to be unapologetically
This series of extended montages connect three
Long Island characters—a husband (Elias Koteas), a housewife (Edie Falco) and a
schoolchild (Rachel Reshseff)—who wander outside their familiar routines.
Mendelsohn’s languid tempo observes their common loneliness, straying and
bewilderment. Vibrant photography by Kasper Tuxen normalizes while beautifying
the commonplace. Mendelsohn’s sensitivity conveys every characters’ feelings in
everything he shows (dissolving from a woman on a pier to a man in an airport
corridor to a child in classroom), tying things together existentially, as
Antonioni, Fellini or Altman would, with a combination of mystery and
Backyards marks a momentous advance in indie-filmmaking
and American art-film sensibility, choosing classic humanism over nihilism.
Suppose the surreal opening of Blue
Velvet (quotidian streets, vacant, quiet lots and fields) was not weird but
seen as normal? Exploratory grace distinguishes Mendelsohn’s suburbia—even when
it evokes John Cheever’s uniform restless dystopia. And could he have gotten
such perfectly resonant schoolhouse colors without the example of Van Sant’s Elephant? Yet these colors are decidedly
warm—not cool—just as Mendelsohn departs from the hipster’s cool existentialism.
Clearly, Mendelsohn has learned cinema from masters rather than following his
cynical, mundane peers, and he triumphantly utilizes the masters’ heightened
style to express his own feelings and experiences.
Mendelsohn’s sympathies are with the unhip: a
housewife painting a still life attempting to find art/beauty in the
commonplace (as does a neighbor with a pedigreed poodle, now lost); a sensitive
yet fearless child; and a temporarily angry husband who gradually rethinks his
discontent. A key sequence has the husband spy on his family during a cellphone
call—distanced from his own life yet not estranged (“You certainly sound
happy”). This inspired scene uncannily dramatizes outsiderness. Mendelsohn
turns alienation into lyricism, portraying all-American vacancies (like the
void into which a suddenly lonely housewife spills her dependencies). Visually,
3 Backyards evokes the spiritual
distance in Edward Hopper paintings, yet without anomie. In a remarkable diner
sequence featuring Danai Gurira as a smiling immigrant, Mendelsohn opens up
possibilities for empathy.
Backyards is Mendelsohn’s first film since the very
moving Judy Berlin in 2000, and he’s
been missed. He’s among the best of the American eccentrics, revealing a rare
capacity for female experience and possessing a feel for the often-distorted
American quotidian. When scenes stop for conversation, the insights stall but
Mendelsohn’s montages are sublime; the first half introducing all the
characters describes a sense of place like no film I’ve seen since 3 Women or the Brian De Palma-produced Zelly and Me—all credible visions of a
neighborhood wonderland, all suburban-cinema poems.