The word “plastics” is never uttered in the coming-of-age dramatic comedy “Hello I Must Be Going.” It’s kind of a shame, for Sarah Koskoff’s wry, poignant screenplay evokes “The Graduate” in so many other ways.
Both films unfold in dysfunctional Jewish homes headed by self-absorbed parents and located in upper-middle-class enclaves. Tellingly, none of the assimilated characters in either movie ever says the “J” word.
The two movies begin as glib satires of existential angst and excruciating comedies of manners before wading into the deeper waters where youthful possibility can easily turn into compromised adult lives of quiet desperation.
The main resemblance, though, is a central character at loose ends who’s drawn into an affair that’s both potentially scandalous and strangely liberating, and provides the catalyst for self-discovery and moving forward.
“Hello I Must Be Going,” which played this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opens Friday, Sept. 21 at the Century San Francisco Centre.
Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) plays a former ugly ducking who became a perfectly attractive woman yet sees herself as a loser — at least when we meet her, ensconced in her parents’ waterfront Conn-ecticut manse and numbly accepting a divorce from her Manhattan husband.
Endearingly mousy and awkward, waking at noon and flopping around in a T-shirt and shorts, the 30-something Amy is a self-deprecating female response to the shameless, selfish man-children that populate so many Hollywood movies. Daddy’s girl to the core, Amy nonetheless recognizes that something’s got to give, but she has no clue, or apparent marketable skill beyond a master’s degree in photography (if she were to go back and finish her thesis, that is).
Her neurotic Jewish parents (a relentless and great Blythe Danner and a suitably soothing yet ominous John Rubinstein) are focused on landing a major new client so he can retire from his law practice and they can go “gallivanting around the globe.” To them, Amy is both a concern and a nuisance who’s landed on their doorstep when they’re primed to embark on their carefree golden years.
Amy’s parents invite the prospective client and his family over for a casual dinner party, which produces the movie’s most deft and squirm-inducing scene. There’s a silver lining to Amy’s inevitable embarrassment, though: The couple’s 19-year-old son (Christopher Abbott of “Girls”) comes on to her.
“Hello I Must Be Going” is not exactly overpopulated with characters, so we anticipate that a kiss will turn into a lusty fling, and then a full-blown affair. As we also might expect, Amy’s excitement over developing an outside activity is tempered by her ambivalence about dating a much younger guy and her fear that the revelation of her secret will cost her dad a lucrative prospect.
This is the kind of film where everyone except the love-struck couple is self-deluded, tone deaf and the object of our derision. Until, that is, Amy’s parents are cast in a new light that reverses our sympathies.
Unlike so many contemporary indie movies about attractive young people fretting over their love lives and near-term futures, “Hello I Must Be Going” succeeds in convincing us that the stakes — namely Amy’s self-respect and character, though perhaps not a career as a gallery-quality photographer — are real, and worth caring about.
The title, incidentally, refers to the immortal song in one of the Marx Brothers movies that Amy consoles herself with on late-night TV, and which she and her father watched together when she was a child.
“Hello I Must Be Going” opens Friday, Sept. 21 at the Century San Francisco Centre. (Rated R, 95 minutes)