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film review

Billy Crudup in Rudderless

When a songwriting son dies in a brutal on-campus tragedy, leaving behind a box of demos that is eventually passed on to his divorced father, the dad uses the tunes to better understand his boy and to help right his own adrift state of affairs. The actor William H. Macy directs for the first time, and his film is poignant, perhaps too much so – his capable lead actor, Billy Crudup, plays his role soberly, even when his grieving character is soused. Rudderless is humane and almost entertaining. A crucial late plot development disrupts the predictability, instigates a third act and provides reason for watching.

And Rudderless is worth watching, though not necessarily for the acting and emotive folk-rock soundtrack. (Mind you, Crudup's even-keeled performance does instill believability and an attractive sort of tension.)

One of the son's songs contains a chorus about wanting to go home. That's some of what this film is about: Direction.

The lost ones include Crudup's Sam, a talented advertising executive and former musician who, after the calamity, takes to a sailboat, hits the bottle and does not endear himself to his marina mates at all. He paints houses for a living, and, on Friday nights, begins appearing at a local bar's open stage – hosted by Macy in what has to be an unfulfilling small role – upon which he passes off his son's material as his own.

It is not Sam's intent to deceive. He seeks to better understand his son and to make his voice heard.

At the bar, a socially awkward young man (guitar-playing Quentin, played by the well-cast Anton Yelchin) digs the song Sam has sung. The next day he shows up unannounced at Sam's sailboat, where he's told that he needs to ask permission if he intends to board the vessel. This is nautical protocol, serving as consent to enter the distant Sam's life.

Quentin's character is a bit underwritten, but he appears to be fatherless, passionate but aimless, and lacking severely in confidence. Perhaps Sam and Quentin can help each other out.

Eventually the two of them join forces with a rhythm section – yep, that's real-life indie rocker Ben Kweller on bass – and form a successful bar band, Rudderless.

Also in the cast are Felicity Huffman (pitch perfect as Sam's mourning-but-dealing-with-it ex-wife), a so-so Selena Gomez (as the son's tearful, grieving girlfriend) and good old Laurence Fishburne, who winningly plays a music-store owner who wants to move on with his life, but his getaway vehicle is a bulky motorhome that he literally can't steer.

Rudderless steers itself home with Sam back at the open-mic night alone, singing a song of his son's to which he added lines. The tune, about having one's voice heard, is an epitaph and Sam's catharsis. The degree to which you are affected by the scene will determine how the film should be judged. I found it to be an over-sentimental stroke, but a tidy wrap-up – a direction home, ultimately.

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