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This week at the movies sure was juicy thanks to Director Julian Farino’s most recent film The Oranges. Co-written by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss, the premise for this flick has enough small-town scandal to go around the block—and then some. The Oranges documents the lives of the Walling and Ostroff families, longtime friends and suburban New Jersey neighbors. When the Ostroff’s prodigal daughter Nina (Leighton Meester) finally returns home for Thanksgiving after a five-year absence, the dynamic between families—and within the families themselves—is about to change for good. Whether she does it to spite her parents or deal with post-breakup baggage, Nina enters into an unlikely relationship with her parents’ best friend David (House’s Hugh Laurie), and unravels the tight knit relationship of not one but two families. Not your average rom-com walk in the park.
The “undeniable” connection that forms between Nina and David, which is the foundation of the film, is actually built on shaky ground. The chemistry between the two characters is present and Meester has all the allure and charm of a 24-year-old woman down pat, but I have a hard time understanding Nina and her motivations for the affair. Yes, she has always rebelled against parents Terry and Carol (Oliver Platt, Allison Janney) and hates the town she was raised in. But even with this knowledge, her character is still flat and—I’ll admit it—confusing. Their relationship feels more like a gimmick than a fully-matured relationship worth risking everything for.
The same issues are there with David and his wife Paige (Catherine Keener). While they certainly have their disagreements, the situation never seems bad enough to warrant an affair. It’s as if we’re thrown into these characters’ lives haphazardly, with no background knowledge or understanding, and we’re expected to pick up their stories like we’d left off somewhere. In theory, this is a great concept for a film. In reality, it falls short. The bones are there, but The Oranges needs more character development if it really wants to sting like it should.
Most intriguing is Alia Shawkat’s character Vanessa Walling, David’s daughter and Nina’s former childhood best friend. Shawkat seems to have a firm grasp on her character’s complex emotions, the sheer anger and misunderstanding that comes along with watching someone you’re close to make harmful decisions that not only impact you, but your entire family as well. Vanessa’s voiceover in the beginning of this film leads us to believe that this is her story, but in the end, it’s really not. It’s more about the two families, their reconciliation (or lackthereof) of the events at hand and how one unexplainable relationship can alter the bonds of friendship indefinitely. The father/daughter dynamic and this unforgivable breach of trust is much more complex and weighty than the cliché one-dimensional relationship between the older man and the attractive neighbor daughter confused with her identity—and it deserves to be explored more deeply.
The Oranges definitely has its quirks and fleeting moments of truth, mostly thanks to Alia Shawkat’s performance. But in order for this film to truly resonate with an audience, it’s going to need a little less juiciness and a lot more substance. It’s a film that’s trying to do too much, and in the process, it loses sight of the characters themselves, which is the entire framework for any good film.