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At Middleton | Review

One Fine Day: Rodgers’ Debut Features Strong Script, Enjoyable Performances

Adam Rodgers At MiddletonIn a saturated market of mediocrity, a slew of sub-par independent romantic dramedies often force some more attention worthy titles to get lost in the mix, which would be an unfortunate fate for Adam Rodgers’ directorial debut, At Middleton, which has been bouncing around on the festival circuit since a premiere at the Seattle Film Festival last year. While its aim isn’t to be extraordinary or overly ambitious in its intentions, it’s a confidently made, well written and handsomely performed scenario that gets a surprising amount of mileage from overly familiar dramatic tensions.

As the inevitability of their freshmen year at college looms near, a throng of people gather at the bucolic campus of Middleton, a prestigious Ivy League school. The severely anal retentive Audrey (Tessa Farmiga) has been dead set on the school, salivating at the thought of working under the tutelage of a famed linguistics professor (Tom Skerritt), though her sometimes eccentric mother, Edith (Vera Farmiga), finds the university a bit too quaint. On the way to the tour, mother and daughter bump awkwardly into the up-tight George (Andy Garcia) and his disinterested son, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) in the parking lot, exchanging slight abrasiveness (and a passion for the word ‘feckless’) over a parking spot. As the tour gathers, Edith and George seem repelled and then flirtatiously attracted to one another, divorcing themself from the crowd as they explore Middleton and developing feelings for each other.

At Middleton walks a tenuous line between feeling charming and stupendously irritating, but usually rests on the side of the former due to Vera Farmiga’s balancing act in a role that could have utterly ruined the film without the right casting. Her Edith is over-the-top, ingratiating, and unhappy, yet we come to develop the same contradictory attraction towards her as Garcia’s character does.

While their antics, at times, are a bit too cutesy, a remarkably awkward moment between the two as they crash an acting course and act out an improvised scene together reflecting some viscerally honest feelings they have about their stagnant marriages feels surprisingly innovative and authentic. Stumbling into the campus projection booth where The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is being screened, we see where Rodgers and screenwriter Glenn German wish for us to make lofty associations, but At Middleton unfortunately looks more like a glossy Hallmark film than it does Demy’s candy confection (though it’s miles away a more astutely observed film about relationships than the similary collegiate themed Admission). No matter, because the abject longing experienced between Farmiga and Garcia instead feels more like a modern rendition of Brief Encounter. Social mores and gender norms in WWII era England may have dictated the doom of the lovers in Lean’s film, but Rodgers’ characters seem to be in eerily similar traps of heteronormative malaise.

The actors playing their children, including Farmiga’s younger sister, are enjoyable as well, though they don’t hold the same degree of interest. Cameos from Tom Skerritt and Peter Reigert supply some late narrative energy, but ultimately are just there to support the repetitive message that the plans and contracts we shackle ourselves to often need to be modified. And just when you think you’re getting tired of what At Middleton has to offer, Vera Farmiga somehow does something innovative, exuding charm and certain elegance even in ungainly scenarios, and you’re drawn into watching what’s going to transpire. But, best of all, it all boils down to a surprisingly diminished and stark finale, a rare feature that adheres to the sting of realism.

★★ 1/2 /☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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