Reunited after a two-year estrangement, childhood friends Brooke and Morgan spend the early stages of "By Way of Home" catching up. The former, laid off and living with her parents, describes this state of affairs with a gentle euphemism ("the whole family's home"), but her delivery carries the unmistakable twang of disappointment.
Spare and accomplished, writer-director Isaak James' microbudget indie -- produced for the unthinkably small sum of $1,000, using a borrowed 5D camera -- revels in such sly implications. Angst is not its default position. Rather, "By Way of Home" struck me as a feat of triangulation, balancing Brooke's palpable dissatisfaction against her nostalgia for the receding past.
Like her brother Ben (James), whiling away the Great Recession in a shoddy trailer behind the family restaurant, Brooke (Eva James, the director's sister and co-producer) endures her situation mostly without pique. Waking early to send out applications, quietly performing kitchen drudgery, Brooke possesses a certain seriousness of purpose: even at her most petulant, protesting her father's refusal to pay for graduate school ("It's only $30,000!" she cries), her frustration is earned. She really is trying.
In "By Way of Home," the mechanics of the so-called "Boomerang Generation" are structural, not personal. Though the film's deployment of talk radio and television news reports about economic decline and the Occupy movement registers as didacticism more than drama, the relationship between Brooke and Morgan (co-producer Whitney Parshall) develops into an affecting evocation of class difference.
In its impeccable rendering of Cape Cod life -- a defunct clam bar's hokey jingle; the crunch of sleet on clapboard; narrow, empty lanes; fudge wrapped in wax paper and packed in white cardboard boxes -- "By Way of Home" expresses Brooke and Morgan's shared sense of belonging to a place, while simultaneously recognizing that a home is more than the ground it's built on. Morgan has few familial resources to draw on, either financial or emotional, and she's wasting away because of it. Brooke may be the victim of a bad economy, but she's also the beneficiary of privilege, secure under her parents' wing.
At its best, singing in a subtler, more temperate octave, "By Way of Home" calls to mind not urbane tales of aimless youth ("Tiny Furniture," "Frances Ha") so much as the small-town New England dramas of Todd Field ("In the Bedroom," "Little Children"). The stakes in James' film never approach those of Field's fevered suburban nightmares, but the fine detail of his aesthetic achieves a similar, unobtrusive command. For instance, the film is tethered to a handful of long takes, extended conversations in which James places one character slightly off-center and uses the architecture of the composition -- walls, furniture, bodies, the edge of the frame itself -- to obscure the faces of the others. The camera immobile, these scenes conjure an eavesdropping effect, as though peering through a window on someone's life and seeing but a fragment.
The same might be said of Brooke and Morgan, lifelong friends separated by an unbridgeable gulf of circumstance. Home, it turns out, is not the worst place to find yourself when you're down on your luck.
"By Way of Home" premiered at the 2013 Provincetown International Film Festival. It screens Monday, July 29 at the Woods Hole Film Festival, and is also an official selection of the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.