Meg Ryan has been working on her feature, Ithaca, for several years now. So new is she to directing that her IMDb doesn’t even have her or her film listed. Ithaca played at the Middleburg Film Fest before coming here to the Savannah Film Festival presented by SCAD, where they also gave Ryan a Lifetime Achievement award for her long career as an actress and producer.
The first thing that you notice about her is what a nice person she clearly is. This is evidenced not just in how shy she is with the cameras on her, not just how every cast member describes her that way, but in how generous she was during the q&a – not really wanting to speak or take any credit herself but always wanting to hand over the mic.
That makes it all the more of a bummer that the usual talk about Ryan swirls around her plastic surgery. People talk more about her face than about anything else. Women are just plain screwed in both ends on this one. They are not forgiven for getting old. They are not forgiven for plastic surgery to make themselves look young. They are only allowed to be young and pretty until the end of time. Hey guess what world? We all age. Look at this sweet dog that George Clooney and his wife Amal just adopted:
And that brings me to Meg Ryan’s funny line in When Harry Met Sally, “is someone supposed to be the dog in this scenario? Who is the dog? I am the — I am the dog!”
Well, whether the hideous beast that is the collective chorus who judges women has accepted or rejected Meg Ryan, she is continuing to be creative and to work. She casts herself in Ithaca as the mother. Tom Hank has a very brief role (probably helped with financing). Sam Shepard is one of the stars, along with the always great and underused Hamish Linklater. The real find are the two youngsters – Alex Neustaedter as Homer (like a young Leo he is), and the world’s tiny ball of charisma, Spencer Howell.
Ryan is clearly a beginner when it comes to directing. The script was one I wanted to chop up and put back together in a certain way for better dramatic effect. But no one should make the mistake of writing her off because this film isn’t Whiplash. She has a good eye, and a particular gift for creating mood, especially when capturing the spirit of children. There were parts of Ithaca that were better than almost any other film I saw this year. It’s loosely based on a William Saroyan novel The Human Comedy about Saroyan’s coming of age in Fresno, California. They changed it to Ithaca and made it set in upstate New York. A young man becomes a messenger who must deliver telegrams to mothers whose sons have gone off to war – the telegrams often contain a death notice – thus, the boy gets an education on war, death and grieving. It really is a traditional coming of age story that captures a time and place we’ve seen a lot of in film. But kudos to Ryan for making her directorial effort about something other than a love story. This is, in its own way, ambitious and hard to pull off. It’s the kind of film Spielberg could direct in his sleep.
If I could change the story I would have re-ordered the telegram deliveries, making them the spine of the story rather than the character studies of everyone else. The real heat of the thing is in the telegram delivery because that’s where all of the conflict is. Films and any kind of dramatic writing thrive on conflict. A screenwriting teacher once asked the class “where do you find conflict?” The answer: everywhere. I would have chopped off a bunch of dialogue. But I didn’t make this movie, she did – and considering everything that could have gone wrong, it’s a solid debut of a promising new director.
We are a success/fail kind of culture so likely this will be seen as an interesting effort. Will anyone standing tall in Hollywood be willing to step up and mentor Ryan? They would be a Clooney-like hero if they did that. Women directors need mentors. Men get them automatically – and are often forgiven if their first efforts don’t quite come off but show promise. Meg Ryan could be a really great director if someone out there was willing to give her a chance.
You know, just saying.