Though Tom Hanks’ performance in Ithaca is surely the briefest he’s ever given, it’s one reason why Meg Ryan’s directing debut feels like it could have been a Spielberg movie. Casting repeat co-stars Hanks and Ryan as the parents of telegraph messenger Homer injects an almost ready-made depth of feeling, yet Ithaca also succeeds in creating tangible bonds throughout its fictional small town community.
It’s a war movie predominantly concerned with the titular home front – fitting given the telegraph messenger’s name and role – but incessant voiceover and army base scenes are symptoms of a faltering focus on the protagonist. In turn, this is a symptom of Ithaca’s largest weakness; the screenplay. Characters meeting for the first time frequently confide in each other to an unconvincing degree, and the dialogue later starts self-consciously attempting to explain this away. This flaw is particularly apparent in the face of Ithaca’s central theme of communication, a motif which goes beyond the literal telegraph deliveries that occupy Homer to explore the sharing of emotion and making of new connections.
Though the screenplay feels a few drafts short of complete, there are some stunningly well-framed shots, and the shrewd casting doesn’t apply only to A-list names (Ryan’s is actually minimal to a fault). Shepard, however, gives a textured performance in a role that could easily have fallen to mere exposition, and Linklater does career-best work. Most impressive though are Neustaedter’s leading performance and the adorably precocious turn by 7 year-old first timer Spencer Howell.
Canny casting and strong performances add interest to a predictable made-for-Hollywood plot. Although it’s her first film as director Ithaca is likely to be harshly measured against Ryan’s existing career. It’s far from mind-blowing, but Ithaca’s best qualities suggest Ryan has great skill with actors.
CAST: Alex Neustaedter, Sam Shepard, Hamish Linklater, Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks
DIRECTOR: Meg Ryan
WRITERS: Erik Jendresen, William Saroyan (based on a novel by)
SYNOPSIS: With his older brother away at war, fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley takes a job as a bicycle telegraph messenger in the town of Ithaca to help support his family.[Trailer forthcoming]