It may not be the Long Island the natives there are more accustomed to, but in Eric Mendelssohn’s 3 Backyards, that sense of place as viewed through a prism of both wonderment and despair, is intensified to nearly enchanted fable stature. Filmed around Northport, Long Island, this Sundance Best Director winner last year, is deep into the moment of the surrounding physical and human worlds alike, that plays out sensually and emotionally beyond the backyard enclosures defining suburbia.
The trilogy of tales and separated stories unfolding as if from the confines of parallel universes yet within a shared neighborhood, are linked only by similarly shaped suburban lives and a single lost dog roaming about. The episodes began at dawn one lush, balmy early autumn day, around the dining room table of one emotionally fractured married couple, between whom few words are shared but looks couldn’t be more meaningful.
Glum businessman John (Elias Koteas) is leaving for the airport on a routine company assignment, but he also appears to be departing from a mutually acknowledged fading marriage. When he’s informed at the airport that the flight is rescheduled for the following day, John briefly returns to do secret surveillance on his family via cell phone while pretending he’s already in flight, to uncover through the windows imagined deceptions when he’s not around.
And deciding instead to check into an airport hotel for the night, John repeatedly catches glimpses of an African immigrant (Danai Gurira), designated here solely as ‘Woman In Blue’ who beams with pride despite a series of humiliations while desperately seeking a menial job, any job, in the surrounding area. An eventual tragic encounter which substantially alters what’s meaningful in the disgruntled family man’s life.
At the same time and in the creepiest vignette, schoolgirl Christina (Rachel Resheff) is late for school after secret trying on a bracelet, a gift from her father to her mother that she can’t seem to remove from her wrist. Taking a shortcut through the woods, Christina comes face to face with the dog thief, a troubled recluse who finds the bracelet she loses there, and is demanding a strange favor for returning it to her.
Finally, in the most dramatically intense tale, middle aged housewife Peggy (Edie Falco) has been giggling like a high schooler all morning with her girlfriend neighbor through their respective backyard windows. It seems that an aloof movie star (Embeth Davidtz), holed up in a nearby home for the summer, has asked Peggy, whose existence she’s never acknowledged, to drive her to the ferry.
The trip is excruciatingly awkward as the celebrity wards off Peggy’s embarrassing overtures aimed to establish an impossible emotional intimacy. And while the unnamed actress refuses to allow her neighbor to function as anything more than a chauffeur, Peggy frantic bid to befriend her idol painfully personifies the impossible barriers that inevitably exist between fans and celebrities, no matter how intense the adulation may be.
Also figuring in the lyrical radiance surrounding this narrative, are captured interludes exploring through music and nature, the stunning physical world these troubled characters barely notice. Exquisite storytelling, not to mention connected at perfect moments with the delicately wrought humor of that perplexed lost dog.
Also of note is Mendelsohn’s unique and resourceful method for collecting money and props to make this movie. Through Long Island’s Pennysaver, what else, ads that solicited Northport locations, volunteers and extras. And ‘right down to a rusty garden shed, nautical themed knickknacks, and a frog in a terrarium.’ And their makeshift production office, courtesy of the first person to respond, Artie. Who offered them one of his booths for meetings, at his pizzeria on Main Street.
4 [out of 4] stars