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Sundance Diary: 'Three Backyards'

Edie Falco stars in Three Backyards. Eric Mendelsohn hide caption

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Eric Mendelsohn

Just how deeply can a writer-director embed his big themes in a movie without losing his audience altogether?

If any constituency was going to go for Eric Mendelsohn's Three Backyards, a tale of lost and mutually trespassing souls in a picturesque Long Island suburb, it would be women of middle age. But to judge by the post-screening line in the bathroom, the consensus mood appeared to be baffled irritation at the movie's willful inaccessibility, as if Mendelsohn meant to push a typical Sundance domestic drama to its extremes.

Still, the more excitable among us, naming no names, really got on board for the overwrought atmospherics that enveloped these walking wounded — Edie Falco as a chatterbox suburban mom giving a ride to a silently suffering actress (Embeth Davidtz); Rachel Resheff as a troubled little girl who stumbles on a pimply neighbor in a private act; and Elias Koteas as a businessman who's fighting with his wife, neither knowing why.

Stubbornly withholding backstory or motivation, Mendelsohn, who made the appealing, slightly less opaque 1999 indie Judy Berlin, traps us within his characters' unarticulated ennui. I'm with him, to the degree that many of us feel that way much of the time. If you're so inclined, you might extrapolate the message that the the road out of pain lies in sympathetic connection with others, and to hell with cultivating our inner lives.

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But Mendelsohn isn't showing or telling, and I can see how all this strenuously sensitive moodiness might drive sturdier psyches right up the wall. A producer for the film told me there were four backyards until part of the budget fell away, and then there were three. I'd say this was one case where art and money sang in perfect harmony.