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Photograph by Tim Orr

Dream Weaver: Sigourney Weaver conjures up visions of Cybele in 'Imaginary Heroes.'

War of the Mothers

Dan Harris' 'Imaginary Heroes' wrestle with love and death in Glen Ridge, N.J.

By Richard von Busack

WHAT IS the most divine aspect of Sigourney Weaver? fans clamor to know. Is it the determined jaw, the lean frame, the silky yet sarcastic voice, the alluring air of macha superiority?

One ancient text suggests that Weaver's divinity can be found in the twin crescents on either side of her razor-thin, self-amused mouth. These—it is said by some, though I myself do not credit it—are indentations pressed by the sacred thumbnails of Ironicus, God of Irony, marking Weaver as his own. Ironicus! All hail you! You, who doth take the piss out of all the gods!

Fulsome pagan rhapsodies to Weaver are probably only going to get worse after Imaginary Heroes—there will be claims that she is the living incarnation of Cybele and stuff like that. When will people learn it's only a movie? As Sandy, a drifting mom nursing her boredom in the most tree-lined part of suburban New Jersey, Weaver easily takes over Dan Harris' film.

Imaginary Heroes takes place during the course of the senior year in high school of Sandy's son, Tim (Emile Hirsch). The family starts to disintegrate after a tragedy that happens early in the narrative. The one who dies was the family's golden boy, his father's favorite. Tim, by contrast, is quiet, and furtive. Shrouded in dark hair and swaddled in winter clothes, he looks like he could be the son of the girl Ally Sheedy played in The Breakfast Club.

Tim is literally injured. He bears bruises he refuses to talk about, while he deals with the guilt and alienation of his family. His father, Ben (Jeff Daniels—born for this part), gradually metamorphoses from a human being into a sort of walking ratty terry-cloth bathrobe.

Since her husband is dummying up, Sandy feels free to keep her own hours. The weed she smokes eases her into a halfway-to-Oedipal mind-meld with Tim. The movie picks up on the stoned quality. Burning one in the alley before this movie is recommended.

The story is held together with the question of who roughed up Tim. The suspects include a high school bully and Tim's bad-boy next-door friend Travis (Ryan Donowho, who does a fine Jagger imitation, flirting with a rubber snake). And there's just enough omitted from the film to suggest that it might be Ben who wallops his son.

As a teenage alienation film, Imaginary Heroes is unusually dry-humored. It knows all the comic forlornness of a bright kid's life—going to bad parties, getting into a car accident, serving a stretch in public service at an old-folks' home and talking to a wrist-case in a suicide ward. ("You have to cut up and down, not across"—the second time this year I'd heard that advice from a movie, after Head-On).

The awkward title supposedly refers to the way we see our parents. Most art-film fans probably see their parents more as antiheroes, or maybe as supporting characters. Director/screenwriter Dan Harris wrote the most recent adventures of those imaginary heroes the X-Men. Since Tim's sexual identity is in flux, the movie gives backing to those who saw a gay subtext in X2's jokes about mutantcy as a lifestyle choice.

Similar as it is to Garden State, Imaginary Heroes is shrewder, more critical, but less lovable. Harris is as adept as Zach Braff with the sight gag. See how Sandy, in custody, glances at a tiny ugly Christmas tree the police have placed next to the telephone where you're allowed one phone call. And the lines seem plucked from life and not from other movies: after an awkward quasi-sexual night, one teenager wakes up and tells the other, "I would have left first, but I live here."

As the kind of downbeat, cool mother everybody wishes they'd had—and were actually lucky not to have—Weaver is as a bracing as a shot of scotch. Magic scenes abound: her amused deadpan reaction to being picked up by Vern (Jay Paulson), an adolescent cashier at the grocery store. (He checks Weaver out and says, "You must be, like, 30?")

Sandy has only one really aggravating bit. She corners a bully in his mother's house trailer, and with granite in her voice, she threatens both mother and son. Using her strength is one thing. Using her privileged class—and the threat of the law—is one too many weapons against too weak a target.

Anyway, Weaver isn't magic because she's some iron great lady, but because she's the daughter of mighty Ironicus. Her fans love her for the double meaning of her words and for her style—it's not Weaver's forcefulness you can't take your eyes off of, it's the vulnerable translucency that goes with that force.

Imaginary Heroes (R; 117 min.), directed and written by Dan Harris, photographed by Tim Orr and starring Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch and Jeff Daniels, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the February 23-March 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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