“Burma,” made by first-time feature filmmaker Carlos Puga and winner of the Grand Jury Award for Ensemble Cast at SXSW, looks at a family in crisis. They aren't falling apart, but instead put together, suddenly, awkwardly, and the building blocks hurt. What starts as a generic and even patience-testing drama ultimately grows into a film boasting strong performances and a few unexpectedly open wounds.
Christian (Christopher Abbott) is an adrift twentysomething with writer’s block and a cocaine habit. His routine consists of casual hook-ups with college-age girls and general self-sabotage of his potential as a novelist and emotionally functional adult. He is thrown into even deeper chaos with the surprise arrival one night of his estranged father, Dr. Lynn (Christopher McCann), who we learn abandoned Christian and his two siblings and their mother when she was on her deathbed.
Dr. Lynn’s unannounced visit is on the eve of Christian’s reunion with his over-achiever brother, appropriately named Win (Dan Bittner), and his tough-minded sister Susan (Gaby Hoffmann), who organizes the annual get-together at her woodsy home. Christian is suddenly put in the precarious position of bringing his dad to the reunion, and facing the reaction of Susan, who has completely cut ties with her father and refuses to let her young daughter know of his existence.
While the journey to Susan’s home and the weekend that follows reveals some quietly devastating truths about the Lynn family, it also is exactly the injection “Burma” needs to push it out of typical indie fare and into something more substantial. The first half of the film introduces a character type that I can’t stand: the girlfriend (or, in this case, ex-girlfriend) who seemingly has nothing better to do with her time than help the main male protagonist sort through his tortured emotional wasteland. Through an implausible plot contrivance, Christian’s ex Kate (Emily Fleischer) ends up accompanying him and Dr. Lynn to the reunion, casting concerned looks and asking meaningful questions all the way there.
It’s too bad, because the film otherwise doesn’t suffer from a lack of interesting female characters. Hoffmann is the best in show, bringing a stinging resilience to Susan. While Christian has emerged from a broken home as a broken person, Susan has pushed hard in the opposite direction, creating a family and home for herself. She’s a fully functioning adult -- and not a hyper-organized shrew -- which is sadly a rarity in films focusing on the under-35 demographic. I take some delight in child stars from my youth emerging as talented grown-up actors. Hoffmann is one of them, and with her role in “Burma,” along with Sebastian Silva’s recent Sundance entry “Crystal Fairy” and a guest appearance on Louis C.K.’s second season of “Louie,” I hope we’ll be seeing more of her.
Abbott also is good. I’m probably not alone in primarily knowing him from “Girls,” and while he isn’t given much to do on that show, his Charlie consistently has an aura of depression, even if not salient at first. Whether it’s being cast off by Marnie or scoring a lucrative app enterprise, Abbott's Charlie always seems dampened by something, giving a strained smile to obscure an inner black cloud. Here, as Christian, Abbott is given the opportunity to explore this vibe more deeply, getting to feel the edges of a character's self-loathing and disappointment outside of the scene-here scene-there structure of television.
Christian certainly comes from a messed-up family, though the film’s ultimate revelation may be that his relationship with his parents -- and their feelings for him -- isn’t so different than many. McCann’s portrayal of Dr. Lynn is somewhat of a blank slate throughout the narrative, but this has a payoff. Sometimes the scariest thing one can learn about his or her parents is that they have a life all to themselves, and a loving, painful, complicated history that, on some levels, is exclusive of their children.