Innovative architecture and beer-drenched punk rock somehow find common ground in The House of Tomorrow, the sprightly debut feature of Peter Livolsi. Based on Peter Bognanni’s novel, the film follows brilliant, sheltered 16-year-old Sebastian (Asa Butterfield) as he learns to let loose his inner rebel under the tutelage of the always-angsty Jared (Alex Wolff). The young leads are wonderfully cast, adding unexpected wrinkles to the Sundance-y coming-of-age story, which delights despite its rigidly structured presentation.
The story’s spirit animal of sorts is the real-life architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, who is worshiped by Sebastian’s grandmother and sole caretaker, Josephine (Ellen Burstyn). Raised and homeschooled in isolation and steeped in the philosophies of Fuller his whole life, Sebastian’s world is mostly confined to the angular walls of the geodesic dome he and Josephine call home, which they also use as a tourist attraction to showcase Fuller’s ideas and designs. There’s little room in his life for anything other than academics, which naturally results in an emotional logjam of pent-up aggression, resentment, creativity, and sexual desire.
Sebastian finds his release during a routine tour when he meets Jared, his sister, Meredith (Maude Apatow), and Alan Whitcomb (Nick Offerman), their father and youth-group leader. When Josephine suddenly collapses during a presentation, Alan offers his assistance in getting her to a hospital, and subsequently uses sneaky dad-tactics to ensure the two boys become friends, whether they like it or not.
Sebastian finds in the Whitcombs a glimpse of a new world full of music and mischief, a stark contrast to the academic rigors of home life. He sheepishly fawns over Meredith every chance he gets, and begs Jared to teach him his suburban punk ways. Meredith is slightly creeped out by the arrangement, and Jared is endlessly annoyed by it, partly because he finds Sebastian boring, but mostly because he has a proclivity for defying his overbearing father.
Ostensibly, Jared appears to be your typical suburban delinquent, preying on Sebastian’s naïveté by charging him for “guitar lessons” and coaxing the poor kid into stealing a bass guitar from his dad’s church. His crummy attitude makes more sense when we learn that he battles a heart condition every day, which severely limits his social life and relegates him to a lonely existence as a bedroom dweller, with punk rock being his only outlet. When the boys realize that they share a common desire to break out of their respective social prisons, they forge a tight bond that culminates in an ultimate act of defiance involving loud music, dozens of strangers, and lots and lots of alcohol.
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Narratively, The House of Tomorrow doesn’t offer any genuine surprises; every inevitable break-up and make-up feels telegraphed and predictable. But this is a movie that shines from moment to moment, with every scene offering something special on its own. This is mostly thanks to the terrific cast: all of the actors have terrific chemistry, and Butterfield and Wolff are natural onscreen partners. Apatow comes close to stealing the show with her magnetic, textured performance, and Burstyn and Offerman set their younger counterparts up for success in their supporting roles.
Livolsi and co don’t stray far from convention in their storytelling, which on one hand makes the movie incredibly approachable but makes it slightly forgettable on the other. But, again, there are some wonderful little moments peppered throughout that will stick in your head for a while, even if the movie as a whole probably won’t. A scene that sees Sebastian and Jared tumble around and get soaked in beer at an underground punk show mosh pit is exhilarating fun, and when the boys finally hit the stage to perform their own music, Livolsi uses some clever cuts and flashbacks to perfectly encapsulate the pain and beauty of Jared’s daily struggles and frustrations.
The spectre of Fuller acts as an effective hook for The House of Tomorrow, but it feels like his concepts and philosophies could have been woven into the fabric of the story in a more readily apparent way. Nevertheless, despite some minor issues, Livolsi’s debut is an absolute crowd-pleaser that will please adults and speak straight to the hearts of repressed, rowdy teens everywhere.
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The House of Tomorrow made its world debut at the 60th annual San Francisco International Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.