Jessica Campbell, who previously re-viewed The Hours, examines another Michael Cunningham adaptation and praises the progressive found family narrative and genuine affection at the center of A Home at the End of the World.
A Home at the End of the World isn’t anybody’s masterpiece, but it’s a thought-provoking movie. I would have said the same thing walking out of the theater ten years ago, with some change in the thoughts provoked. The film is based on Michael Cunningham’s 1990 novel of the same title; Cunningham also wrote the screenplay (his first), with direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer (whose non-stage directing resumé includes Flicka, several episodes of “Smash,” and “Hatfields & McCoys”; you can’t say the man’s not versatile). I was on a serious Cunningham kick following the 2002 movie version of his novel The Hours, so I had read A Home at the End of the World in the past year or so. I didn’t reread it for this review, but my recollection is that the movie is largely faithful, though inevitably streamlined.
Even so, the plot’s a bit involved, so here’s a refresher: The two central characters are Jonathan and Bobby (played in the early part of the movie by Harris Allan and Erik Smith, respectively), who become friends on the first day of high school in 1970s Cleveland. Bobby has lost his brother and his mother by the time he and Jonathan meet; his father dies before they graduate. Their friendship begins with listening to records and smoking weed and evolves, with no dialogue, into a relationship that includes sex. Jonathan goes off to college, but Bobby stays behind for several years living with Jonathan’s parents as he has done since the death of his father. Before long, both boys have reached 24 years old, and the teenage actors have been replaced by Dallas Roberts (of “The L Word,” “The Good Wife,” and the occasional movie) as Jonathan and Colin Farrell (of everything) as Bobby. Jonathan is living it up as a gay man in NYC in the 1980s (yes, you know what’s coming), living with his best friend, a bubbly, slightly older straight woman named Clare, a hat designer always sporting a new hair, makeup, or clothing style (played by Robin Wright then-also-Penn, obviously in view these days for her portrayal of a rather steelier Claire, the wife of Frank Underwood on “House of Cards”). It turns out that Jonathan and Clare have planned to have a child together even though they are not involved romantically, and that Jonathan still has feelings for Bobby. But Bobby and Clare begin sleeping together, so before the three really have time to settle into their friendship, things get complicated. My mother always told me three was a bad number. She was right. Jonathan soon gets fed up and goes to his parents in Arizona. His father, though (played by Matt Frewer, lately Dr. Leekie on Orphan Black), soon dies of the respiratory condition that sent him to Arizona in the first place. When Bobby and Clare come west for the funeral, Clare reveals that she is pregnant by Bobby. Suddenly everything changes: the three of them decide to move to upstate New York (Woodstock, in fact – Clare had been to the legendary concert) and raise the baby together. They hold things together for a while. The baby is born. Bobby starts a restaurant called The Home Café, at which he works as the chef and Jonathan works as a waiter, while Clare stays home to take care of the baby. Bobby and Clare continue sleeping together. While Clare becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her role as traditional stay-at-home mom in this supposedly non-traditional arrangement, Jonathan discovers telltale spots on his body that clearly forebode AIDS. He tells Bobby but not Clare. Ultimately Clare can’t take it anymore and leaves for good with the baby. Jonathan and Bobby stay on together, but Bobby knows of Jonathan’s condition. The movie ends before Jonathan dies, but we know what is coming.
Cunningham’s story was damned progressive in 1990, and it was unconventional in 2004 and 2014, too. As far as I know, hardly anyone was even talking about marriage equality in 1990. And in 2004, back in good ol’ Oregon where I grew up, “we” passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage even though we went for Kerry. I was still going to a high school where they pretended homosexuality didn’t exist at all; for real, they wouldn’t let our English teacher show us Far From Heaven, solely because homosexuality was a theme. If only we don’t tell them, they’ll NEVER find out! Obviously, things have changed. Ten years later, Oregon is scrambling to pass gay marriage in November because they’re embarrassed that Washington beat them to it. And there are plenty of cultural and legal indications that the U.S. and many parts of the world more generally are becoming far more willing to consider gay rights.
And yet. That’s not actually what A Home at the End of the World is about. Nobody’s trying to get married, for one thing, and I know many people who are upset that marriage has become the banner gay-rights issue in recent years. No, this movie is more about interpersonal structures more generally, and about the cobbling together of a family. I could imagine someone who has had successful open relationships objecting that this movie seems like fear-mongering; better not try it, since somebody’s bound to get hurt. But A Home at the End of the World isn’t ultimately about that. It isn’t ultimately about sex, for one thing. In the end, the trio doesn’t fall apart because Jonathan isn’t sleeping with anyone. It falls apart because Clare feels like the odd man out emotionally, and because she gets stuck with most of the baby tasks while Jonathan and Bobby are both away from home working too much. Because the delicate emotional and practical balance of the home doesn’t work for her. They’re trying to make a functional home, not just a relationship. Needing to match up the sexual orientations is part of this trio’s problem, certainly; since it turns out that Clare had been hopelessly in love with Jonathan through much of their friendship, that means that both Jonathan and Clare struggle with romantic and sexual love for the one of the trio who doesn’t/can’t reciprocate it. But that problem is one they can get past; Jonathan moves into the house in Woodstock knowing it’ll be Bobby and Clare in one bed and him in another, and Clare is willing to pursue the relationship with Bobby that she originally wanted with Jonathan. Finding love isn’t nearly as difficult or as complicated as making a home.
In fact, there’s no shortage of love. Something I really like about this movie is that the three main characters seem genuinely to care about each other. (The apparent lack of genuine affection is the main reason “Girls” drives me crazy.) They come through in times of bereavement and enjoy each other’s company. The script suddenly gets funny when Clare announces her pregnancy and the three make their plans for choosing and setting up a house. For several minutes, we are reminded of how well these three people can fit together. They reassure each other throughout the story (as I recall Cunningham doing throughout the novel as well) that each one of the three is essential to the balance of the group. Speaking of love, I have to comment on Sissy Spacek as Alice, Jonathan’s mother. She gives a beautifully understated performance; as a midcentury suburban housewife, Alice keeps most of her feelings to herself, but Spacek always lets just enough seep through that you get the sense could have had her own movie. One day when the boys are teenagers, she overhears them playing “Desiree” and walks in to listen. Bobby, now without his own mother, has always been affectionate with Alice. In this moment, while she stands in the doorway with a laundry basket, he offers her a hit from the joint the boys are sharing. After the shock and the sense of motherly responsibility wear off, she says “Don’t tell your father” and takes one, and pretty soon the three are dancing together. Jonathan is of course mortified at first, but soon it feels natural – a little awkward, but natural. A few scenes later, Alice stumbles on Bobby and Jonathan kissing in the car. Nothing is said at the time, but later that night, Bobby finds her in the kitchen making a pie. She tells him she doesn’t know what to say to him, and he offers to move out. Instead of responding directly, she asks if he’d like to learn how to make a pie. He gives a surprised smile and says yes (and soon becomes a professional baker). This scene is one of my favorites in the movie. At first they’re standing around the kitchen several feet apart and without making much eye contact. They genuinely don’t know how to behave, but they love each other. I like that they don’t make Alice into a “cool” hippie mom; she isn’t so sure about what the boys are doing, but the fact that she loves them wins out. Within minutes, her hands are guiding Bobby’s over the rolling pin, and she has given him a livelihood.
Although there is never really any sexual tension between Alice and Bobby, she is certainly Clare’s precursor as something of a third wheel to Bobby and Jonathan. Then again, once Clare enters the picture, it’s often up for debate exactly which one of the three is the third wheel. It’s significant that, not having seen this movie for several years, I couldn’t remember which one of the trio bowed out. What kinds of love matter most? Who do you want to build a home with, if your best friend and your lover are two different people? Watching it in 2014, this movie reminded me of Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids (2011), in which a heterosexual but not (initially) romantic pair of friends decide to have a baby together. One of them gives a rather rousing speech defending that decision, essentially saying, she’s my best friend, she shares my values, we know each other inside and out, so why in the world shouldn’t we build a life together? It’s a damn good question. Looking back at the people I’ve known over the last few years, I honestly couldn’t say those things about a single person I’ve dated or wanted to date. But I could say them about several friends. I’m not on the brink of making some sort of arrangement, but having dipped my toe into some different kinds of love, I can understand why Jonathan might decide to move to the middle of nowhere with Bobby and Clare instead of staying in the city where romantic partners are everywhere.
I found myself getting impatient with Bobby this time around, a reaction I don’t remember having ten years ago. Back then, I mostly just thought it was really interesting that they were trying to live in a group of three at all. But this time it grated on me a little bit when Bobby so frequently said things like “No, it’s fine, this is great, things are perfect just the way they are.” Bobby’s older brother, before his dramatic and visually striking death by running through a very clean sliding glass door at the opening of the movie, always reassured Bobby about things like drugs and sex by saying “There’s nothing to fear, man.” I mentioned the thing about the death by glass door, though, right? The truth is that there’s a hell of a lot to fear. And obviously, as evidenced by the fact that both Jonathan and Clare give up at certain points, the arrangement isn’t perfect.
Now, I know that there’s a good reason people say “Oh, no, it’s great.” It’s an implied response to comments like “You can’t do that” or “That isn’t what people do” or “That’s weird.” And I think a lot of us today, even more than ten years ago, are very invested in saying “This isn’t traditional, but it’s fine. It’s perfect. It’s what I want.” Because we don’t want to be those conventional naysayers. And sometimes it really is fine. But sometimes you have moments like Clare’s, when she realizes, “I think maybe I’m not this unusual. Just my hair.” Yes, in fact, you can have wacky hair and want a traditional family. You can be gay and otherwise conventional. You can be a hang-loose pot lover and a virgin (as Bobby is when he moves to New York). You can love two people at once in completely different ways. But the fact that you can isn’t the end of the story. It isn’t necessarily perfect. It’s hard. For one thing, your wacky hair seems to signify that you are that unusual, both to other people and to yourself. Just before they start sleeping together, Clare persuades Bobby to let her give him a haircut on the grounds that his hippie hair doesn’t match who he really is: “If you walk around looking like someone other than who you are you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with someone else’s whole life.” Bobby protests, but he lets her cut his hair. I hate to say it, but Clare has a point, as her own realization later in the movie bears out. I had a conversation this summer with a fellow femme-y lesbian friend about how we’d both thought off and on about cutting our hair short so that it would be easier to meet people. Neither of us has done it. For me, it’s partly because I have a hang-up about the shape of my chin (oh, shut up, everybody’s got something), but largely because I get mad when I think about there being a specific way to “look gay.” If that were the reason I did it, chopping my hair would be no different from, say, a straight girl not cutting her hair because her boyfriend likes it long. The haircut doesn’t ultimately change much for Bobby, but Clare is preemptively talking about herself. Her hair ought to signify someone who’s ready for anything, even a household in Woodstock with a baby and two men who love her very differently, but she discovers to her own surprise that it doesn’t. Sure, you can wear your hair any way you want, and you can live with whomever you want, but that doesn’t mean it will work the way you planned or make you happy.
Ultimately the home these three friends try to make doesn’t last. But you get to the end of the movie feeling glad that they tried, because the attempt was true to the way they felt about each other. This is a far cry, thankfully, from a ménage-a-trois, sexy partner-swapping kind of movie. It’s really just about a handful of lonely people who try to make a home together. A Home at the End of the World doesn’t have the beauty or power of The Hours, which I would also say of the novels on which they are based (both by Michael Cunningham; check out his latest novel, The Snow Queen, which I’ve just started and already found to be a pleasure). I would have liked to see more visual attention to place, since the movie is so deeply about making a home and finding a place, and since there’s so much variety in the places they try (Cleveland, New York City, Arizona, and finally Woodstock). The soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s music is nice, and tone-setting; someone who knows more about the music of that era than I do would be needed to say anything more than that. I have to confess that watching Robin Wright in this movie mostly made me want to watch “House of Cards”; she just doesn’t have as much to work with here. Colin Farrell is rather one-note but charming as Bobby, always gentle and wide-eyed, like he’s a little dazed that he’s still around. The young actors who played the characters as teenagers successfully conveyed the combined awkwardness and joy of adolescence; I was sorry to learn from IMDb that neither has gotten a great deal of work since then. But Spacek was excellent, as I’ve said, and all the actors do a nice job of making it seem they’ve known each other intimately for a long time; it’s an ensemble you believe in, even though it isn’t a very vivid one. I wouldn’t mind seeing A Home at the End of the World as a play, actually. It isn’t spectacular, but the passing of ten years absolutely has not made it obsolete. Two hours spent watching a movie that makes you think as much as I have the past week about how you cobble together a family and a home is two hours well spent.
Additional Comments on the Important Matters of Fashion and Classic Cinema:
–I love Bobby’s striped pants.
–I’d forgotten that they go to a screening in NYC of All About Eve! If you haven’t seen that, WATCH IT. Come watch it with me, I own it! In A Home at the End of the World they briefly show a three-person scene with Broadway star Margo, lover Bill, and pretender Eve – not an accident, as those characters have a bit of a three’s-a-crowd situation themselves, though a more cut-and-dried one. Bobby is clearly seeing the movie for the first time, but Jonathan and Clare are holding hands and lip-syncing enthusiastically to every word. Awesome. I wish I could say the family that watches All About Eve together stays together. Alas.