Sinking under years of guilt and resentment, suburban mom Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) decides to try smoking weed. Finding the stash that daughter Penny (Michelle Williams) has hidden away for son Tim (Emile Hirsch), she rolls a gargantuan blunt, plants herself on the backyard swing, and starts toking. Observed indiscreetly by neighbor Marge (Deirdre O’Connell), Sandy is soon stoned out of her mind, splayed on the lawn, her face upturned to the starry sky but eyes closed.
Alas, this respite is predictably temporary. Another U.S. independent film that turns relentlessly inward, Dan Harris’s Imaginary Heroes keeps digging into Sandy’s darkly-secreted past, producing revelations less surprising than wearisome (though granted some poetry by the gifted cinematographer Tim Orr). The stage for all this excavation is set by the film’s early Major Event, namely, the suicide of Sandy’s high school swimmer superstar son Matt (Kip Pardue). The act appears to be his final defiance against any number of indignities and frustrations. Primarily, the story seeps out, he resents his over-invested dad Ben’s (Jeff Daniels) plan, that he/they go on to swimming fame and fortune (Olympic his son’s death is all about him and his lost ambition). But a brief, pained exchange of glances between the brothers just before Matt shoots himself suggests that something else is at stake, for both Matt and Tim.
The brothers’ bond, located in anguish that is both shared and divisive, is underlined when Tim discovers the body, head blown off and blood everywhere. Unable to speak, Tim makes his way to his mother, eating breakfast bacon in the kitchen, trailing behind him bloody footprints, little dirty signs of the secret the brothers have repressed for all their brief lives. While he’s painfully removed from his father, who favored Matt blatantly, Tim is close with both Sandy and Penny, in different ways. While Penny’s life apart from the family takes her off screen for much of the film’s running time (too bad, given the relief offered by Williams’ delicate performance), Sandy feels omnipresent, insisting on the remarkable intimacy of their mother-son relationship and noting Ben’s inability to appreciate Tim’s non-athletic gifts. “Don’t worry,” she says following one of Ben’s several insensitive comments, “He’s just an old bitter asshole.”
Sandy knows something about this bitterness, as Ben soon turns his routine rage against her, alternately ignoring and impugning her (among the horrors he imposes on the family, is the fact that he insists Sandy fix a dinner plate for Matt each night, so they can all stare at his empty chair and watch the carrots congeal). Lucky for her, Tim’s sensibility matches Sandy’s and so they console one another. One day Tim is sent home from school for affiliating with one of many local delinquents, Marge’s son Kyle (Ryan Donowho). As they sit on their porch, sharing a smoke while they watch Kyle being picked up by the cops, Tim sighs, “People are so stupid I can’t bear to live around them anymore.” She can only commiserate, “They only get worse.”
Sandy’s wry insight and determined emotional support only go so far. Tim’s increasingly insipid journey from understandable depression to self-understanding takes up much of Imaginary Heroes’ focus. As the film takes a literally designated seasonal structure (sections named “Winter,” “Spring,” etc.) and provides Tim with symbolic mysterious bruises (to be explained later, in relation to Sandy’s secrets), his ups and downs take place against holidays and weather.
Tim’s friendship with Kyle causes some adults (namely, Ben) concern, but Sandy appreciates and even sympathizes with the boys’ angst, and even some of their acting out (as her efforts to get high indicate). Lonely and self-seeking, the boys eventually find themselves in a New Year’s Eve, Ecstasy-fueled clinch. The next morning, they wake side by side and agree to ignore what happened, frightened about what it might mean (Kyle suggests that even if Tim might be, he is most definitely “not gay”). This means they have to avoid each other at school, a disturbing shift in dynamic that leaves both vulnerable to other kids’ abuses and adults’ ignorance.
Though Tim does his best to withdraw, scribbling furiously in his journal, his mom begins adventuring, flirting with a grocery store checker and visiting the local head shop (complete with dark glasses and a jaunty rationale, that she’s from “the ‘60s”). Their different tacks lead them to expected common ground, another nuclear unit broken. Their damage goes so far as incest, an ultimate sort of turning inward and a point that remains unnamed and un-dealt with in Imaginary Heroes.