Review: ‘Ceremony’ is charming showcase for Uma Thurman, Michael Angarano

It would be very easy, as someone who sees and reviews hundreds of films a year, to let first impressions color my work or poison a film before I ever set foot in a theater.  It affects what I choose to see at a festival, what press days I attend, and any number of other editorial decisions, and I find myself constantly working to avoid being cynical or immediately dismissive of films for shallow reasons.

It would be easy to look at the debut film by Max Winkler and presume that nepotism got him his opportunity.  After all, his father is Henry Winkler, and he’s grown up in and around this industry to such an extent that he’s able to thank “Steven and Kate” in the closing credits of this film.  And it would be equally easy for me to have skipped it based on the star of the film, Michael Angarano, an actor I’ve had a hard time liking over the course of his short career.  It’s not his fault, per se, and it’s wrong to hold something as chemical as my dislike of him against him.  It just happens sometimes.  I think for all serious film fans, there are those people who pop up occasionally that just set your teeth on edge for reasons you can’t even explain.  And so, making a surface judgment, I skipped the film when it played Toronto last fall.

Now, with the movie opening this weekend in limited release, I decided to finally bite the bullet and catch up with it at a screening yesterday afternoon, and to my enormous surprise, I not only found the film to be expertly written and directed by Winkler, but I also warmed up to Angarano in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible.  This may have finally been the performance that convinced me, and for that alone, I would recommend seeing the film.

The coming-of-age story is a reliable subject for first or second time filmmakers, and the best of them bring an authentic voice, a sense of time and place, a context that makes them special.  I was totally head-over-heels for Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine” at Sundance, and I feel like “Ceremony” is the exact same kind of gentle, well-observed, small-scale marvel.  Sam Davis (Angarano) is a writer of inappropriately violent children’s books with a sappy romantic streak, and he invites his best friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) on a holiday weekend under false pretenses.  The two have a complicated history that becomes more and more clear as the film progresses, and Thompson and Angarano are great together.  Their friendship is impeccably charted by the performers and by the writing, and it plays out over a manic comic backdrop, a weekend-long wedding celebration for self-centered award-winning hyper-macho documentary director Whit Coutell (Lee Pace) and Zoe (Uma Thurman), a woman who may or may not have a complicated history of her own with Sam. 

What unfolds is a drunken, shambling, often-hilarious character piece.  Sam is so used to be so full of shit that he’s stopped noticing what it does to people or how people react to him.  He’s constantly projecting this image of who he is, and it’s all based on fear and need and loneliness and regret and self-doubt, and Angarano plays every shade of this guy with absolute conviction, underselling things in just the right way.

Uma Thurman is walking heartbreak in the film, and much mileage is gained in noting the distinct height difference between the statuesque Thurman and the not-so-much Angarano.  She has very real and tender feelings for Sam, and he filled a certain need at a certain time, but Whit is, for all of his flaws, a real adult, a person who has made something of themselves, and who can take care of Zoe and provide for her. 

One of the reasons that’s important is because of her unstable brother Teddy, played by Jake M. Johnson.  He’s flat-out great.  Teddy is a slow-eyed powder keg, angry and resentful, ready to blow, medicating himself with a bag full of pills and a constant stream of hard drinks, and he is the one who escorts Sam and Marshall into the wedding party uninvited.  For Sam, this is a last-ditch effort to win the woman he loves.  For Whit, this is a head-game with someone who doesn’t realize they’ve already lost.  And for Zoe, it’s a weekend that forces her to examine what it is she really needs in a partner.

Lee Pace seems to relish every single second of playing Whit.  As we’re watching the entire situation with the dude from GoDaddy playing out in the media like a slow-motion car crash, Pace’s character hits hard.  He’s so self-absorbed he’s like a black hole.  He has a gigantic personality that seems to be an effort to make up for a complete lack of soul, but he does understand Zoe, and he does love her as much as he can love anyone, and he can give her a sense of safety and security, something she desperately needs.  He’s big, but he’s not a cartoon.  Pace always finds the line and makes him human.

Winkler has a keen ear for soundtrack cuts, a great sense of pace and energy, and he knows how to deflate his characters in a way that makes them endearing, no matter how damaged.  It’s a terrible weekend in many ways, but there are grace notes, and Winkler hits each one just right.  William Rexer’s photography seems almost documentary in the way it captures this weekend of privilege and release, the way the party ebbs and flows, the way little dramas and intrigues play out among the various guests.  Hats off to Joe Landauer for the way he keeps an urgent pulse alive throughout the movie, until the exact right moments, where he always takes a breath.  And Inbal Weinberg’s production design looks to me to be completely authentic, like the filmmakers just found a party already in swing and wandered in, cameras rolling.

“Ceremony” works because its goals are so modest.  It’s not an earth-changing event for anyone except these few people, and the only stakes are their hearts, some fresh scar tissue, and years of friendship possibly down the drain.  Winkler and his cast make those stakes matter to us, and I walked away impressed.  “Ceremony” seems to me to be the work of a filmmaker I look forward to seeing more from, someone with something to say. 

All those surface concerns of mine were forgotten by the end of the film, and considering how I walked in to the film, that’s actually fairly impressive.  If it opens near you this weekend, I advise you to check it out, and otherwise, it’s available via VOD on some systems now.