If you’re looking to make a talking heads movie that’s able to create big drama using little more than simple dialogue scenes, then populating your cast of characters with a bunch of sensitive, insecure creative types is probably a good strategy. And it’s exactly the strategy that first time writer-director Josh Boone has used for his debut picture, Writers. The film focuses on an unusual family that includes a critically acclaimed author (Greg Kinnear) as its patriarch, a daughter (Lily Collins) who has just published her first work, a teenaged son (Nat Wolff) who is developing his craft through journal writing, and a mother (Jennifer Connelly) who has been excommunicated from the family, probably because the guy she left the father for doesn’t have an impressive enough personal library.
Each character has a struggle to go through. Kinnear hasn’t been able to get through the dissolution of his marriage, and he has found himself in a slump of depression that has not only affected his work but also turned him into the sort of creepy weirdo who hides in his ex’s bushes and peers through her windows. Collins, still processing the loss of innocence she experienced due to the infidelity in her parents’ marriage, has built a wall of acting out and defensiveness between herself and the rest of the world and may be in danger of becoming permanently bitter. Wolff is dealing with the pitfalls of being a sensitive young man in a world where thoughtlessness is a more valued state of being. He’s decided to begin a campaign of reckless experience-gaining, so that he can one day become a writer of substance. Connelly’s character, while less clear what exactly she’s struggling with, would certainly like it if her daughter would start returning her calls.
If there’s one thing Boone has pulled off impeccably in putting together Writers, it is the compiling of his cast. He’s put together a crew of strong actors from top to bottom, headed up by the always likable Kinnear, who gets the sort of star focus he doesn’t enjoy often enough. His character here is completely off the rails, but he’s still clearly a great dad. He’s a talented writer but perhaps a less talented one than his reputation would suggest. These shades of gray afford him the opportunity to really show off and project a wealth of conflicting emotions. This character is at times likable, pitiable, charming and pathetic. And due to Kinnear’s experienced handling, he always holds together as a cohesive whole, even though mentally he’s all over the place. This role requires a refined subtlety, and Kinnear proves that he has it in spades.
Connelly, for her part, has always been a capable actress and has always had movie star looks, but there’s a certain coldness to her that has probably prevented her from getting as many leading roles over the course of her career as she might have otherwise. Here that serves her well, as we know that she’s unhappy, we know that she’s left her husband for another man, but because the other characters aren’t currently interacting with her, her thoughts and motivations are kept at a distance from us. Who her character is ends up being something of a mystery that we need to crack, and Connelly’s closed book of a face serves to heighten that experience.
Collins is different in that she’s able to believably play frigid, but there’s also always a sweetness to her smile that lingers underneath the ice. Here, too, her natural disposition works well with the role she’s playing, as the daughter character is a conflicted young woman who’s always trying to project cynicism and detachment when what’s she’s really feeling is vulnerability and hurt. Probably she gets the biggest journey to take over the course of the film, and though her story thread borders on melodrama a time or two, Collins’s work is able to make it all emotionally affecting (I didn’t tear up, I swear).
Let’s address that borderline melodrama. This may come as something of a shock, but a movie about a bunch of insecure writers somehow ends up getting overwritten. At times, Boone’s script can go too far in revealing the character arcs it’s setting up and the themes it’s going to explore. There’s a pointedness to some of the conversations that make it clear exactly where they’re going immediately after the actor who gets the action delivers their first line. There are a development or two throughout the film that feel manipulative in how explicitly they’re conceived to create drama, as well. Can a 15-year-old girl really have already developed a drug addiction so severe that she’s prone to sudden relapses given temptation? Did the boy who tries to melt Collins’s icy heart really need to be taking care of his dying mother? While Boone’s material largely impresses for a first effort, there are certainly some rough around the edges aspects to his screenwriting that can be worked on over the course of his next couple projects.
But also there’s enough good here to indicate that it should be a joy to watch him do so. Though some of his scenes can feel a bit phony, the actual dialogue the characters are given is really good. It’s clever and entertaining without feeling overly quippy. And while the doomed first love that Wolff’s character has been created to experience plays as a bit clichéd and obvious, the arcs Kinnear and Collins’s characters go through are each really well realized—and not just because they seem to be the strongest actors. Writers’ writing is competent and has personality, and Boone is clearly able to direct actors to engaging performances. Keep your eye on what he does next.
The Upside: Good dialogue and great performances make Writers a character study that’s worth a watch. Especially if you have anyone in your life who fancies themselves as being a writer. Then it can get downright hilarious.
The Downside: This is a movie about writers, so of course some melodrama was bound to creep in here and there. Trimming the handful of emotionally manipulative moments out of the script would have gone a long way toward making this one feel smarter and subtler.
On the Side: Is it just me, or is the casting of Jennifer Connelly and Lily Collins as mother and daughter so spot on it’s uncanny? These two are like bushy-browed dopplehotties. Buying them as being related isn’t any sort of stretch at all. Heck, you could probably have them play the same character at different ages—without any Looper-style digital manipulation—and no one in the audience would bat an eyelash.