Ithaca is a film that’s easy to like, but few audiences will. It has a strong cast, likeable characters, and a compelling concept. Regrettably, the film tries to do too much in too little time, which destroys any attempt to develop characters and plots. So watching the film can feel like looking at a mosaic of scenes that don’t have much meaning to viewers. And while this amalgamation of sequences is evocative in its own right, it also feels like an incomplete experience.
Based on the 1943 novel The Human Comedy by William Sayoran, Ithaca is a coming of age story about Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter), who becomes a bike messenger to help support his family while his older brother goes off to fight in World War II. Despite being only 14-years-old, Homer is forced to grow up fast as the realities and effects of the war come home. Along the way, he builds new bonds with townsfolk, like his boss, Tom (Hamish Linklater), who has trouble growing up, as well as with his family, like his mother (Meg Ryan).
Ithaca sets up a lot of expected tropes for this kind of film early on. Homer starts a new job, establishing competition with rival messaging service Western Union. Homer finds a love interest and a rival suitor. And Homer discovers that men in his life all have something to teach him about growing up and the changing responsibilities that come with it. Unfortunately, none of these setups are paid off in the film. Perhaps that works in the book version where whole chapters can focus on supporting characters and their experiences, but for a film with a defined running time, audiences don’t have that same opportunity. As a result, there’s a palpable feeling that Ithaca tried to capture as much of the book as possible at the expense of how movies tell stories.
Despite issues with the storytelling, this film is very charming. The setting hearkens back to an era of wholesomeness and can-do American spirit even in times of war. The children running around the town are rambunctious but never seem sinister. And the pace of life felt much slower, but somehow fuller, filled by the slow, poignant conversations people had to pass the time. And, of course, the actors are also responsible for much of the watchability of Ithaca. Alex Neustaedter is a good everyman, acting as a blank slate on which audiences can project even if he does play his 14-year-old character a little too wise for his age. Hamish Linklater and Sam Shepard, the old telegram operator, execute their roles perfectly as older generations of men sharing their respective wisdom with Homer. Even though they are archetypal characters designed for a purpose, these actors manage to feel organic and are interesting to watch whenever they’re on-screen. Tom Hanks also makes an appearance in a small cameo as Homer’s absent father. It’s a testament to his star-power that Hanks can have such an impact on the film despite only being seen for roughly two minutes. Finally, Meg Ryan also has a small, but important role in the film. While she does a fine job as a supporting character, the takeaway is that it’s to Hollywood’s great shame that Ryan stopped getting roles, because just seeing her in this film will make audiences feel safe in knowing that they’re going to get an excellent performance.
Ithaca is also Meg Ryan’s directorial debut. Academically, this should be a natural progression for any aging actor who isn’t leading films anymore. As a director, it’s difficult to see where her touches are in the film. Besides a scene early on, there aren’t any deliberate camera movements or unique angles. While there are some choice lighting decisions, especially later in the film, nothing consistently stands out. And, outside of a few performances that Ryan possibly teased and shaped, the cast is composed of seasoned actors who probably didn’t need much directing. On the other hand, perhaps Ryan’s light touch is purposeful, and the world of Ithaca is vibrant enough to come to life on its own. At the very least, Ryan didn’t impede that process, so she got the job done.
Is Ithaca worth watching? Yes, but really only as a piece to study or as a fan of the source material. The script just isn’t compelling. Main characters are supposed to work towards goals and affect the world around them. In this film, the main character has no control over anything important and is constantly acted upon by the world around him. So there’s nothing to root for as a viewer. You are literally just watching things happen. Perhaps “not having control in life” is the message of the film, but that can still be conveyed while telling a standard story using typical film formulas.