P.S.: Dylan Wash’s Modest Indie, Elevated by Laura Linney’s Performance

Films offer different reasons to be seen, and the raison d’etre for P.S., a small, ultra-modest indie, is Laura Linney’s subtle, multi-nuanced performance as a mature woman who falls for a student half her age. P.S. represents a step down for director Dylan Walsh whose feature debut, Roger Dodger, was a more provocative and interesting film.

When Linney is on screen and the story deals with her vulnerabilities and affairs of the heart, the film is engaging. However, the surrounding stories are flat, and the secondary characters are so narrowly conceived that even gifted actors like Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Rudd fail to leave an impression.

The script by Kidd and Helen Schulman, based on Schulman’s novel, is talky and often verbose; there are too many phone conversations. Moreover, based on literary rather than cinematic devices, the text lacks the juicy stuff that usually characterizes such melodramas; P.S. might have been better served by a female director, more sensitive to the heroine’s tangled web of relationships. The film’s visual style is serviceable, but no more, perhaps a function of its low budget.

Louise Harrington (Linney) works as an admission officer at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She maintains a warm relationship with her former husband, Peter (Gabriel Byrne), a popular Columbia professor, though she’s still sensitive over their failed marriage. She yearns for change. Something basic is missing from her life, love. Louise spends most of her time alone, evaluating applications for Grad School.

Standing at her office window overlooking Columbia’s campus, she observes with mixed, bittersweet feelings students moving around, making out. Pushing 40, she is still attractive, but she feels she’s heading into a bleak single life. Louise may be her own worst enemy, a woman prone to repeating mistakes and falling into predictable patterns of behavior.

Opportunity knocks when she comes across an application from a grad school student named F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace). F. Scott bears the same name as Louise’s high school boyfriend, killed in a care accident decades earlier. F. Scott not only looks and sounds like her lover, he also paints like him.

The opening sequence, a phone call between Louise and F. Scott, is intriguing and promising. Choosing a low-cut dress for the first encounter suggests that Louise may have other things on her mind without being totally aware. The first dates deftly and credibly show that the motives for both partners are at best unclear. Are they guided by genuine emotions for each other or ulterior motives Will the affair help or damage F. Scott’s chances of getting into school Will the quick consummation of their passion play a significant factor

The love affair forces Louise to confront her past. She is driven back to her home and family, and it is in these sequences that the film is at its weakest and flattest. Louise raises issues with her mom (Lois Smith), who might favor her younger brother, Sammy (Paul Rudd), a recovering drug addict with whom Louise has a distant relationship as well.

There are also intimate calls between Louis and Missy (Marcia Gay Harden in a brassy, over the top performance), her best friend from high school, who later flies from California. Missy arrives in town to revive a long-running argument over who would have ended up with the late Scott had he lived. Louise thinks Missy stole Scott from her, and there’s also the danger that Missy might do the same with her new beau.

A tryst with a potential incoming student, who’s cute, curious, and impudent, as befit his age, might be her salvation. But Louise is carrying on her frail shoulders too much emotional baggage. Missy articulates Louise’s problem when she says: “Some people just refuse to let anything good happen to them.”

In due course, revelations are made, some more interesting than others. Peter provides unsolicited confessions, informing Louise that he’s a sex addict, just when she begins to feel more secure. Louise makes the mistake of asking how many. In the hundreds, he says, shattering her frail self-confidence. Louise’s critical mother and her problematic brother represent the kind of family members who have the special talent to bring Louise’s mood and self-esteem down. We also learn that the deceased painter left Laura for Missy, though Louise still believes she was his real love.

In its good moments, which are plentiful, P.S. is a sharply observed intimate tale, in which co-writer and director Kidd shows a tight focus on his lead characters. Despite a good start, the film begins to ramble as soon as it strays beyond the central couple. The diversions into Louise’s family life have the curious effect of distracting from rather than enhancing the central romance. Indeed, the realistic focus of the early stages of the romance get progressively cluttered with mysticism and psychologistic observations about fate and reincarnation, which are better suited for literature than dramatic cinema.

That said, the film’s concise mood and rich emotional texture are marvelously served by the two leads. As she showed in You Can Count on Me, a similar but much better picture than P.S., Linney is wonderful at portraying the confusions and longings of a woman who is at a great remove from men–and from herself–and needs to get a grip over her emotional life. Linney is particularly effective at illustrating unspoken words, showing hidden feelings and subtle emotions. She illuminates effortlessly the great pains it takes a smart and proper woman like her to make a bold move.

Better-known for his TV work in That 1970s Show, Topher is appealing and credible as a youngster about to cross from boyhood to manhood, representing the right balance between youthful exuberance and tenuous maturity.