Representations of male midlife crisis are everywhere in our culture — they’re as close as the nearest Porsche salesroom, really — but how often do we get to see a movie where a woman hits the wall and wigs out? “Hello I Must Be Going” is a rare treat: a small, satisfying confection about a divorced 35-year-old woman who washes up at her parents’ house with no idea of what’s coming next and who becomes the local Mrs. Robinson almost by default. The movie’s sharp-tongued and softhearted, a Sundance kind of film that mostly sidesteps generic Sundanceyness.
And it stars the great, sad-eyed actress Melanie Lynskey as Amy Minsky, the film’s central walking disaster. Lynskey usually plays character parts (she was the bad mom in “Win Win” and the worse aunt in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), and you can feel her delight in getting to stretch. Amy is depressively still on the surface and pure panic beneath; dumped by her ambitious attorney husband (Dan Futterman), she’s in her third month of hiding at her parents’ airy Connecticut home, sleeping until noon and never changing T-shirts. Maybe she’s reverting to adolescence. Maybe she never left.
This sounds like the stuff of tragedy or at least black comedy, but director Todd Louiso, working from Sarah Kosloff’s deft script, keeps the tone wry and observational, and there are moments that can break your heart. A simple scene of Amy trying on a little black dress is unaccountably touching, so rarely do the movies show us women of a certain age and a certain shape with anything like sympathy. Amy might be Lena Dunham’s older but not necessarily wiser sister, even if Dunham’s “Girls” is committed to raw truths and “Hello I Must Be Going” has a tendency to pull its punches.
The movie has at least two other performances to recommend it. Blythe Danner is just plain glorious as Amy’s mother, Ruth, a caustic twig of an ice queen who looks at her daughter like someone switched the kid at birth. The actress gets off a pair of raging monologues toward the end that might be Oscar-worthy if anyone were paying attention, but mostly, as with Lynskey, you sense a craftsperson’s pleasure at getting a role with room to play. (You’re also reminded that this is where Gwyneth Paltrow got her acting genes, and that mom probably held on to the lion’s share.)
As Jeremy, the 19-year-old high school graduate Amy seduces — actually it’s not clear who seduces whom; they’re like two unhappy tugboats crashing into each other in the night — Christopher Abbott nails a certain sort of youthful sensitivity without going Holden Caulfield on us. His noodgy psychiatrist mother (a very funny Julie Wilson) thinks he wants to be an actor. She also thinks he’s gay and wears her tolerance like a Girl Scout merit badge. It’s easier for Jeremy to go along than tell her who he really is, since he clearly has no idea. That’s what draws him to Amy; she’s the only person in suburbia with fewer defenses than he has.
The sex scenes between the two are comical and surprisingly hot, and they take place in the cracks of upper-middle-class routine: the backs of cars, an unfinished rec room. The tone of “Hello I Must Be Going” could be unremittingly bleak, but Louiso gets the inherent absurdity of suburbia — how it makes everyone feel like an outsider — and the film’s cosmic acceptance of failure is warm and democratic. At one point, Amy looks up at the heavens and asks, “Where the [expletive] is bottom?” I’ve had days like that, and so have you.
Because movies have to wrap up at some point, the script gives Amy a few scenes toward the end where she baldly tells other characters the lessons she has learned. This is subtext as text, and it’s unnecessary — we and she don’t need the handholding. Such missteps are offset by Julie Kirkwood’s modest but unerring camerawork and a haunting acoustic score by the Portland, Ore., singer-songwriter Laura Viers. Her music is the kind of Starbucks-ready strumalong that American independent movies use as a crutch, but Viers puts real confusion and loss into the chords, and it helps the film breathe.
The title, of course, comes from a song Groucho Marx sings in the 1930 comedy classic “Animal Crackers,” one of the old movies Amy grew up watching on late-night TV with her taciturn father (John Rubenstein). One of the many things this unassuming charmer gets right is the way dads can pass this particular brand of Marxism to their children as a foolproof joy in a world that doesn’t often play fair. That’s their bond — like Groucho, Amy and her father (and Jeremy, too) are wary of belonging to any club that would have them as a member. I’ve had lives like that, and so have you.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.