In a world that’s seemingly filled with war and never ending death, 14-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) is trying to understand the world, his place in it, and why war has to exist. Between becoming a man and taking over as the central figure in his household after his father’s (Tom Hanks) death, Homer becomes a telegram messenger for Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and Mr. Gorgan (Sam Shepard). His eldest brother, Marcus (Jack Quaid), is off fighting in World War II and Homer is left behind in the town of Ithaca. Trying to make sense of all the telegrams he delivers sending news of dead sons and husbands, he ponders questions about war.
Making its world premiere at this year’s Middleburg Film Festival, Meg Ryan is ambitious in her directorial debut. The film is completely well-intentioned, simple and not cynical. And although Ryan’s heart is in the right place and the tone of the film certainly never strays, Ithaca simply doesn’t work. Its message is never clear and the story points don’t necessarily come together very well. A third of the way through, you know exactly where the film is headed, but the journey getting there isn’t a smooth one. Set in the 1940s, the too-innocent Homer makes it hard to connect with him on an emotional level. Ithaca could very well be a coming-of-age story, but it comes off a bit like an anti-war tale as well as there are several things Homer could make different and issues with the war he can’t quite come to terms with.
The title, based on the place in Greek mythology to which Odysseus wants to return to after spending ten years away from home. However, it strikes an odd note that Ulysses (played by the adorable Spencer Howell), the Roman name for Odysseus, is not the name of the elder Marcus, who is in fact away from home and wants to come back. Even the inclusion of Marcus is tacked on and we never really connect with him in any way. Perhaps his character should have remained as a simple voice over in his letter to Homer rather than have physically portrayed.
Ultimately, Ryan is ambitious in her directorial debut, but Ithaca never comes together to be a moving and coherent story, as I’m sure it intended to be. Tom Hanks makes a couple of cameo appearances, but the scenes between he and Ryan don’t really add anything to the film. Regardless of the film’s overall underwhelming nature, the cinematography is beautiful and distinctly makes you feel like you are in the 1940s. Unfortunately, Ithaca doesn’t have a clear message and is entirely too slow-paced.