Three Backyards, directed by Eric Mendelsohn in 2010 for Sundance Films, follows three parallel storylines across a single autumn day: A businessman attempts to leave on a trip, two women travel to a ferry, and a middle-school girl loses her mother’s gold bracelet.
Director: Eric Mendelsohn
Producers: Rocco Caruso, Amy Durning, Eric Mendelsohn
Writer: Eric Mendelsohn
Cinematographer: Kasper Tuxen
Editors: Morgan Faust, Eric Mendelsohn, Jeffrey K. Miller
Cast: Elias Koeas, Kathryn Erbe, Edie Falco, Rachel Resheff, Embeth Davidtz
Premiere: January 24, 2010 – Sundance
US Distributor: Screen Media Films
It’s a modest film. But within these plotlines there are a few moments of quiet triumph; the first of these coming in the thrilling magnification of the actual setting, as the filmmaker explores the spaces surrounding our homes in somber intensity.
Shooting on portable Red One digital cameras allows the filmmakers to follow a middle-school girl as she crosses through woods, across backyards, and in and out of her neighbors’ lives, in a sort-of real-time dérive. This movement, across the transitional pieces of land and property lines, feels almost like a movement across stages of the liminal world. The filmmaker makes familiar and legible landscapes strange in a technique that plays up the classic film tropes of voyeurism, but subverts them with a child’s gaze. And it’s a rare pleasure to engage the world through this lens.
This movement across suburban backyards recalls Frank Perry’s 1968 epic, The Swimmer, in which an aging businessman (Burt Lancaster) attempts to “swim home” leapfrogging from one backyard pool to the next all the way across a valley. This simple conceit achieved a rare profundity, especially when Lancaster arrived at the final pool. And while Three Backyards hits none of the grand existential scale of that picture, the all terrain filming gives this picture an exciting intensity nonetheless.
Like The Swimmer, Three Backyards is firmly grounded in the “dirty realism” of the last century (John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel) and this picture experiences some of the plot falls endemic to that style: “realist” working-class accents get exaggerated, people eat funny food and drink too much, but mostly, the relations of white American’s are held up as high drama. Of course, this is fine, but it can trend a little narcissistic (It’s a big world out there). It also feels strangely dated, as if there was a time when it was more compelling to watch these privileged people bemoan alienation.
The film succeeds because Mendelsohn is happy to leave things ambiguous. A few scenes evoke the menace and mystery of Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage; and an overall air of mystery keeps the film compelling across it’s brief 88 minutes.