Vera Farmiga can do no wrong and watching her layered, subtle performance in Adam Rodgers’ At Middleton allows us to discover a side of her we rarely get to see: an extraordinary gift for comedy. The wide eyed actress is usually cast in dark films and is given very dark parts, even her Oscar nominated role in the fluffy dramedy Up in the Air made her a villain of sorts who crushes George Clooney’s little heart.
Most recently she’s been giving life to Norman Bates’ mother on A&E’s campfest Bates Motel, which week after week has her delivering monologues about rape, incest, murder and other unpleasant subjects. She’s terrific in those parts, but she’s so intense that one wondered if she could ever come down from that emotionally disturbing cloud.
In At Middleton Farmiga plays Edith Martin, an outspoken woman we meet as she goes on a day trip to one of daughter Audrey’s (Taissa Farmiga) prospective colleges, the Middleton from the title. At the start of their day they run into George Hartman (Andy Garcia), a nerdy heart surgeon visiting with his son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco). After a meet cute involving parking spaces, the two couples run into each other again, as if it hadn’t been obvious from the very start that they would be the characters we’d be following. The clashing personalities between the parents make it just a matter of seconds before we’re wondering when they’ll start falling in love with each other, but the moment comes when we least expect it.
First, we must forgive the screenplay (written by Rodgers and Glenn German) for making us believe that these two overprotective parents would leave their two children all alone during a college tour, yet this is exactly what happens. As if in a dream, Edith and George drift away from the group and have an adventure of their own as they wander through the campus, sometimes interrupting the “order” of things as they go along.
At Middleton has a distinctly European flavor to it, as the screenplay leads the characters into situations that are more realistic than rom-com cute. The film seems to be devoted to the conversations between Edith and George, and as such, can be compared to similar recent features like Before Midnight and le Week-end. But while the Linklater trilogy seems to have hogged the spot for “best dialogue driven movies, ever” sometimes making people judge “copycats”, there are films like At Middleton which remind us that the style is far from over.
At Middleton relies entirely on the chemistry between the two leads and for all we know they could be talking about what they had for breakfast, and we would still find the conversation immensely romantic. Watching Edith and George open up to each other, realizing that they are living empty lives and trapped in loveless marriages breaks the heart, but even sadder is the realization that this one day they have together might be nothing but a piece of stolen time. Garcia, whom we rarely see onscreen anymore, especially in a romantic part, delivers one of the loveliest performances of his career. George begins as a type A cliché, but slowly reveals himself to be an enchanting, mildly insecure man unsure of his feelings and whether to act on them or not.
His performance is a lovely contrast to Farmiga’s more emotionally acute Edith, who seems to have some sort of emotional Tourette’s syndrome, as she finds it hard not to fall for her first emotional reaction. Watching them slowly become more in tune with themselves and each other ignites all kinds of longing and melancholy in the audience, who undoubtedly wants to spend the whole day with them. As time unfolds and we see them fall in love, the more we dread the end of their tour, as we know that this will only mean that this enchantment can only come to an end whether through a ridiculous plot turn, or even worse, a realistic one, in which we realize these two characters will never see each other again.
Tears will most likely be in order as the ending approaches. Yet, the film leaves us with a sense of inevitability as we understand that their children will now enter the world of adulthood and perhaps will be more successful than their parents were at finding that one ideal love.
At Middleton is presented in a great high definition transfer by Anchor Bay pictures who have also included an adequate array of bonus features beginning with audio commentary with the director, screenwriter and Garcia (who also produced the film). Also included is an outtake reel which gives us the gift of Farmiga’s sonorous laughter and finally a music video called “There Was a Day”, with music and lyrics by Garcia and Arturo Sandoval, the latter whom the actor played in the 2000 biopic, For Love or Country.