Secret Life of Houses, The

Sundance Film Festival 1994–Slow, ponderous, and a bit pretentious, Adrian Velicescu's The Secret Life of Houses is yet another examination of a dysfunctional family, this time seen from the perspective of a young lonely girl. As a portrait of a daughter coming to terms with her mother's sudden death, the film is more impressive in its expressionistic visuals and evocative ambience than in its dramatic elements. Chances for theatrical release of this tawdry art film, which was initially made for TV, are middling.

In The Secret Life of Houses, director, co-scripter, lenser and editor Velicescu explores the complex relationship between Margret (Remy Ryan) a sensitive nine-year girl and her harsh, frustrated single mother (Laurie Metcalf). When her mother is abruptly rushed to the hospital, Margret not only decides to fend for herself but also manages to conceal from the authorities that she lives by herself.

For the first half an hour or so, this moody drama is rather effective in chronicling the solitary existence of Margret, who simply refuses to believe that her mother is going to die. Rushing back and forth from her home to the hospital, Margret's life is presented as a mysterious, often intriguing, labyrinth of childhood memories, wishful dreams, and painful realities.

Margret's secret, imaginative life is terminated by the arrival of Aunt Fergie (Shirley Knight), a greedy, rational, down-to earth woman, who's determined to take care of business as quickly and efficiently as possible, which includes liquidating the house, cremating the body, taking the money left, and sending Margret to her unstable father in Detroit.

Defying linear structure, Velicescu captures convincingly–in sporadic moments even poetically–the inner working of a girl's psyche and soul when faced by abrupt, traumatic events. Keeping his camera close to Remy Ryan's beautifully expressive face, helmer shows the subjective perception–and reconstruction–of reality from her point of view.

However, the juxtaposition of Margret's lyrical world with the surrounding, unfeeling adult world is schematic and overly stressed. Though most of the grown-up characters are intended as caricatures, the farcical humor they bring to the story is often forced and external, and it also clashes with the narrative's rather gloomy nature, making the film jarringly incongruous.

As helmer, Velicescu exhibits a draggy, unmodulated style that ultimately becomes too detached and too formal for such an intimate story. But he shows some talent in evoking mood: the film is marked by a European artistic sensibility.

Funded and produced by the Independent Television Service as part of their “TV Families” series, The Secret Life of Houses probably works better in its shorter TV version.

Credits
A Tainbreaker Films production. Produced by Crocker Coulson. Co-producer, Charles E. McKittrick III. Directed, edited by Adrian Velicescu. Screenplay, Velicescu and Scott Bradfield, based on the latter's short story; camera (Foto-Kem, color), Velicescu; production design, Sergio Onaga; coordinating producer (for ITVS), James Schamus. Reviewed at the Sundance Film festival, Park City, Utah, January 29, 1994. Running time: 91 min.

Cast

Margret………….Remy Ryan
Ann…………Laurie Metcalf
Aunt Fergie….Shirley Knight
David………….Joseph Culp
Head Nurse..Catherine Coulson