Many a struggling indie filmmaker has turned to his family for help. But writer-director Andrew Wagner, embarking on his first feature after a shelf-ful of unproduced screenplays, asked for something considerably more complicated than a financial infusion—for his pseudo-confessional road movie The Talent Given Us, he wanted his mother Judy, father Allen, and sisters Emily and Maggie to play themselves. The results are mortifying—which is exactly as Wagner intended.
Seamlessly solipsistic and basically a glorified home movie, The Talent Given Us is this year’s Tarnation. It’s also a Sundance film through and through, a less bleak Capturing the Friedmans with the familiar arc of countless dysfunctional domestic comedies. But Wagner’s anti-vanity project, despite the self-congratulatory vigor with which it makes a show of picking at family scabs, also possesses a curious integrity—this raw, fascinating, often unpleasant film is not in the least coy about its queasy mix of exploitation and therapeutic exhibitionism.
A stunt premised on the unembarrassed supply of too much information, The Talent Given Us is blessed, if that’s the right word, with almost shockingly unselfconscious performances: Wagner’s sisters are both professional actors, but his parents are not. Judy, eager and volatile, seems like a natural; more surprisingly, so is lumbering, slightly speech-impaired Allen—at least to the extent that he has a real skill for ignoring the camera. They tackle the specter of late-life regret with gusto, excavating the desires and resentments underlying a marriage that, while comfortable in its rituals, has ossified
from years of neglect. Sis Emily has seemingly been appointed the movie’s safeguard against sappiness—playing herself as a morbidly narcissistic sub-Hollywood creature with a litany of bodily and New Age fixations and a habit of expressing them in almost Tourette-ish gushes. Emily’s self-help shtick becomes less funny when it’s clear that Wagner wants in on it too.
The Talent Given Us climaxes with a gentle reminder that “the fulfillment that you are looking for is right here.” That this line is spoken by the real-life Bruce Joel Rubin in his real-life meditation class is perhaps the film’s best joke.