Starting Out in the Evening

Sundance Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere)–The gifted writer-director Andrew Wagner returns to the Sundance Film Festival with “Starting Out in the Evening,” a quietly intense, superbly realized drama about a group of erudite New Yorkers, headed by an aging novelist and a graduate student who becomes obsessed with his work and with his life. As of day 5 of the Festival, it's the strongest film I have seen in the official competition.

As the out-of-print novelist, widower, and sensitive father, Frank Langella gives such a towering, multi-nuanced, and fully-realized performance that he elevates this dramatic entry into one of the best features to be seen at Sundance Festival this yearin any section. Surrounded by the usual coming-of-age serio comedies (or dramedies), “Starting Out in the Evening” is an intelligent and mature film for intelligent and mature audiences, a rare sight in both offbeat indiehood and mainstream Hollywood.

Leonard Schiller (Langella) is a decorous 70-year-old, who carefully shelters himself from the outside world in order to complete the book he's been laboring over for over a decade. When Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a brash bookish graduate student at Brown University, enters the scene, she punctures Leonard's solitude and order with her determination to mine his life for her M.A. thesis.

As Heather prods Schiller's boundaries to uncover deeper meanings in his work, Leonard is both shaken and emboldened. Meanwhile, Leonard's daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), a formally uneducated but bright and sensitive woman, pushes 40 and is intent on having a child with almost any man who crosses her path.

Like her father, Ariel invites a distraction into her life that seems a diversion from her primary purpose, having a baby before it's too late. While father and daughter attempt to shield each other from (unnecessary) pain, it is only in the freedom to take risks that their lives move forward and ultimately get more fully realized.

The performances of Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose (still best known for TV's “Six Feet Under”), and vet indie queen Lili Taylor, representing frustrated, unfulfilled individuals at three different phases of life, are uniformly excellent. They make full use of the richly dense text, co-scripted by Wagner and Fred Barnes, based on Brian Morton's acclaimed novel. Inspired by their director and the material, the thespians infuse their respective characters with a keen sense of self-awareness.

Especially extraordinary are the unpredictable tangles between Langella's Schiller, who's 70 and refuses to behave like a dirty old man, and Ambrose, who's 25 but probably more mature than her biological age suggests.

Ariel's old leftist black boyfriend, played by Adrien Lester, is the fourth protagonist. The quartet of characters tugs on each other's vulnerabilities as they strive to actualize individual promise at different stages of life.

At the center, though, is the complex (and complicated), constantly shifting relationship between Schiller and Heather, which is by turn sensitive and cruel, social and intimate, erotic and distanced. In due course, the duo lock horns over various issues, personal as well as literary and professional. In the process, they learn the hard way the values of friendship and trust, pushed to the limit and put to the test.