At the heart of most stories, at least the good ones are two things, contrast and conflict. This is especially true for a dramatic story such as the one before us today, ‘Neverwas’. Basically the film depicts a generation gap. This is done not with the usual motifs such as the rebellious teen and his parents but between a grown man and his long deceased father. Even when we grow to adulthood most of us still carry the baggage that we inherit from our parents and this tale shows that sometimes that load is heavy and may require a lifetime to deal with. This film also provides a contrast between what afflicted the parent and how that helped to determine the man’s profession. These are aspects of life that we all face and this film presents them in an interesting fashion but the presentation is somewhat lacking. It is not enough just to have a good yarn to weave; you have to have the ability to tell it properly. This is the main fault of the movie, excellent premise with a mediocre delivery. There is still promise in this film that makes it worth while but as happens all too often now the true potential is not achieved.
The film opens with a flashback. Young Zach Riley (Ryan Drescher) is in a shadowy room. He appears greatly upset and runs off into the near by woods. Soon men with dogs are out looking for him. Still in his pajamas he runs deeper into the woods away from the barking of the dogs. Zach (Aaron Eckhart), the man, awakens; it was another of his nightmares. As the opening credits roll we hear the narrator, Gabriel Finch (Ian McKellen) begins to tell the back story as we see illustrations from a children’s book showing the boy fleeing into the woods. The protagonist of the book is Zack, transformed into a hero in a magical world; the book is ‘Neverwas’, penned by his late father T.L. Pierson (Nick Nolte). The real, adult Zach is a psychiatrist who has just resigned his position at Cornell Hospital in New York City. To the surprise of all his friends and colleagues he has taken a much less prestigious position at Millwood Clinic; an inpatient facility side on a huge amount of surrounding land. He explains to his new supervisor, Dr. Reed (William Hurt) that an acquaintance of his was once committed there and he wants to provide the care that his friend never received. As the tale unfolds we soon learn that that friend was actually his father who committed suicide, his body discovered by a young Zach. The facility is a far cry from Cornell. The Millwood Clinic is barely funded, under staffed and houses the hopeless. Still, Zach is persistent and talks Reed into giving him the job.
At the clinic Zach comes across one of the patients, Gabriel Finch (Sir Ian McKellen), an elderly depressive schizophrenic who, just for added spice, has several addictions. The first thing Reed does is introduce Zach to the patients in group therapy. Among them is Dick (Michael Moriarty) and Patrick (Alan Cumming). Dick is the more sedate (perhaps sedated) of the two while Patrick is a bit over the top. While having dinner after work Zack is approached by a pretty young girl, Maggie (Brittany Murphy). She knew Zack when they were children and has carried a crush for him for all the intervening years. Maggie moved away when they were kids but is now a graduate student back home doing some research. Zack’s mom, Katherine (Jessica Lange), is not particularly happy about his working at the clinic where she once committed her husband. It isn’t long before Zack discovers that Finch once knew his father. Finch now carries a vintage copy of Zach’s father’s book with him as a child would hold a precious teddy bear. Throughout the remainder of the film Finch helps Zach learn the truth about his father and the fantasy world he wrote about.
The premise here is intriguing; a man searching for answers to a disturbed past by returning to the hospital his mentally ill father was committed to. The interest is held by Zach going to the clinic in a position of responsibility but neglecting his duties to solve his personal mystery. At its heart the film is an often dark character study that is hampered by a script that is too full of gimmicks. During the initial group therapy session a female patient goes into a fit of rage and tosses a coffee cup that just happens to be filled with glitter. It cascades down as Finch looks on dreamy eyed. The story deserved better than moments like this and unfortunately there a just a few too many of them. This is the freshman effort as director for Joshua Michael Stern. His previous writing credits include some thrillers including the lamentable ‘Amityville: Dollhouse’. Typically, films like this are driven by gimmick scenes so perhaps that is why this film was done in this fashion. Once Stern gets the hang of more dramatic faire I am sure that he will greatly improve in telling this type of story. This film has a cast that if left to their own devices would have done better with their characters.
Speaking of the cast this one is remarkable. Thanks to the two tier salary system that many stars hold to extremely talented, A-list actors make themselves available for smaller budget films like this one. Aaron Eckhart is a very talented actor who is just coming into his own in his craft. He has range that permits him to handle everything from dark comedy like ‘Thank you for Smoking’ to complex roles such as he had with ‘Conversations with Other Women’. Here, even hampered by the script he was able to make Zack into a fully fleshed out, damaged human being. William Hurt walks through his role almost in a trace but here it seems to work. His portrayal of Reed is one of a man who most likely set out with aspirations of helping others but is now stuck in a storage facility that is little more than a warehouse for the broken. Sir Ian McKellen takes every role he encounters with strength, determination and class. He makes the most of a difficult situation here and, as always, is a joy to watch. As always, Brittany Murphy is her usual, bubbly self. She adds just a touch of romantic interest and comic relief.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment in association with Miramax brings this film to DVD with a plain vanilla release. While these studios are best known for their family entertainment it is reassuring that they have not forgotten little independent films like this. The non-anamorphic 2.35:1 color is excellent. One thing Joshua Michael Stern has an eye for is the use of color and this transfer reflects it perfectly. The scenes in the clinic are cold and foreboding while the shots outside that environment are rich with warm, inviting colors. The Dolby 5.1 audio is well balanced with exceptional channel separation. While this is not the film it could have been it is still well worth the watch.