Directed by Marc Turtletaub | Written by Gavin Steckler | 87 min | ▲▲▲△△
A slight, dramatic comedy about senior citizens who provide care for a visiting extraterrestrial, it’s only just barely science-fiction. Really, it’s about recognizing the humanity of people in old age and their struggles with health and loneliness — it parallels 1985’s Cocoon in that regard.
A heartwarming piano score sets the stage, with Milton (Ben Kingsley) walking around his Pennsylvania small town. He stops by municipal council with a list of suggestions for change, the same requests every day. He lives alone in a sprawling house, but his veterinarian daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), regularly checks in on him. Is he starting to show signs of a mental decline? Maybe. Certainly the people he knows, like Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin, once a Conehead), think so when he starts to talk about a spaceship that crashed in his backyard, crushing his azaleas, and the alien who he’s invited into his home.
Except that’s exactly what’s happened.
The “spaceman” (Jade Quon) is a sexless, silent, silver humanoid with big, empathetic eyes — maybe not as immediately unthreatening as ET, but not a far cry. It’s not long before Sandy and Joyce know about them and Sandy names them Jules. (Joyce prefers “Gary”.) The alien’s simple, unthreatening demeanour allows the trio of seniors to open up and share personal stories.
All of this suggests a playful level of self-awareness with comedy at the forefront. That’s clear around the sci-fi tropes — the spaceship is the kind of flying saucer familiar in pop culture since the 1950s. In the first act the townsfolk are artificially kept from discovering what’s actually going on in Milton’s home for the sake of a reveal a little later on.
These plot points challenge us to take any of it seriously, but the baked-in performances from the three veteran leads — all of whom are comfortable with both comedy and drama — deliver genuine emotion. These characters are lonely in their own ways, at a physical or emotional distance from loved ones or grieving the passing of partners. Kingsley certainly brings that depth, even while his accent wanders up and down the continental United States.
Those dramatic elements of the story work reasonably well, though where the picture chooses to incorporate humour may deliver tonal whiplash. It’s hard to know what to feel during a key scene that cuts between one character earnestly belting out “Freebird” and another is being attacked in their home, not to mention the disposition of a series of dead cats.
Full marks to screenwriter Steckler for the unexpected, pointed use of f-bombs to liven up the proceedings — those chuckles keep Jules from wallowing in sentiment. It’s what distinguishes this project, a fearlessness to incorporate incongruous elements. Not all of it works all the time, but the film gets marks for charm and originality.