Review: Ithaca, from first time director Meg Ryan

Alex Neustaedter in Ithaca

Ithaca is one of those women’s movies I’m always looking for. With Meg Ryan stepping up to her first ever directing role and several important positions behind the scenes filled by women, I had to watch it.

Tom Hanks is there in a tiny role as the ghost of Kate Macauley’s husband. Meg Ryan plays Kate Mccauley.

The important character in the story, based on William Saroyan’s novel “The Human Comedy,” is 14 year old Homer Mccauley (Alex Neustaedter). It’s a coming of age tale for Homer.

The setting is World War II. Homer’s father recently died and his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid) is off to fight in the war. Homer gets a job delivering telegrams.

Still at home with Homer and his mom is his sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his free-to-wander 4 year old brother Ulysses (Spencer Howell).

The thing that was right and beautiful about the film was the nostalgic, misty-eyed look at small town life in the 1940s.Homer is hired by Tom (Hamish Linklater) to deliver and pick up telegrams and night letters. Even though messenger boys are supposed to be at least 16. Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard) works in the telegraph office as the telegraph operator.

Homer is young and innocent when he starts his job as messenger boy. His first delivery is a telegram from the Secretary of War telling a mother her son died. Reality hits him hard. From that moment on, it was predictable where the story was going.

Before Homer takes a telegram from Willie’s hand, he asks, “Is it an important one?” This is the closest Homer can come to asking if it’s another telegram from the Secretary of War.

The film moved very slowly. There are voice overs from Marcus as he writes a long letter home. The most exciting things going on were the times Homer had to wake up a drunk Willie Grogan to transcribe the incoming dots and dashes and the adventures of young Ulysses and his pals. And, as I mentioned, the plot was transparent.

The acting was too subdued and stoic for my taste. So many losses due to war hit Ithaca, I wanted more than blank-faced reactions to events.

The small-town characters had potential that went untapped. That was disappointing. I don’t know how characters could have been more developed in the time allowed for the film, but I wanted them to be. Tom and Willie in the telegraph office both felt undeveloped. Corbett (Scott Shepherd), the bartender was as well.

The thing that was right and beautiful about the film was the nostalgic, misty-eyed look at small town life in the 1940s. That was spot on. The ordinary lives of ordinary people at the heart of the story were rendered with watercolor strokes and images.

Now, I’m going to contradict myself. The ending, when it came, was quite powerful. Even though I knew it was coming. When Homer and his mom quietly gather the family at home to deal with their loss, it was a moving scene. It was small, subdued, and elegant in the simplicity of a family coming together.

Creative artists like Meg Ryan who have been rejected as leading women by Hollywood are more and more often taking matters into their own hands as producers and directors. I support this effort 100%. While I don’t give Ithaca the highest ratings ever, I do look forward to seeing more films directed by Meg Ryan.

Have you seen Ithaca? What did you think?

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