One of the great, largely unseen films of recent years is Jody Lambert’s “Of All the Things,” an affectionate yet never fawning profile of his father Dennis Lambert, a titan of 20th century American pop music who largely flew under the radar. The film had a wonderfully charming subject, as you might suspect of the man who co-wrote “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but the director had no small part in setting “Of All the Things”’ enchanting tone, which took the strange premise of Lambert’s rediscovery in the Philippines decades after his heyday and his subsequent tour of the country and found the fun in it without a hint of cynicism or irony. (Only lucky festival circuit audiences to see it in 2008 after Steve Carell optioned the rights to dramatize it.)
Lambert’s narrative feature debut “Brave New Jersey” shares that sweetness, as well as its uniquely intriguing type of premise, set on Halloween eve 1938 in Lullaby, New Jersey where everybody in 506-person town has tuned in to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” on the radio. While the broadcast continues to live in infamy after inspiring panic all across America since listeners thought it was a live account of an alien invasion, Lambert finds Lullaby blissfully unaware, putting to the test its motto, “Where strangers are welcome and no one’s a stranger” once spaceships are said to be descending on the farming community.
Havoc immediately breaks loose on main street, but the film sets in motion a number of causes for concern among its cast of characters well before, all of which land when the UFOs are thought to. Few seem satisfied with life in Lullaby, where the mayor Clark (Tony Hale) has been elected for his handyman skills, literally fixing all the town’s problems, rather than his popularity, and its lone school teacher Peg (Anna Camp) has her attention drawn away from the kids with an overly amorous fiance (Matt Oberg) whose singular focus on her reminds her of all the interests she has that can’t be fulfilled with him. Meanwhile, there’s the town’s power couple, Paul and Lorraine Davison (Sam Jaeger and Heather Burns), set to revolutionize the town’s dairy production with the introduction of the mechanized rotolactator for cows before disaster strikes, its dispirited Reverend Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl), and a crotchety World War I vet (Raymond J. Barry) living on the outskirts of town who sees a second chance to go into battle after hearing Welles’ baritone.
Even if nothing ever actually touches down from the sky, the glory in “Brave New Jersey” comes from the fact that you can see how the experience has nonetheless broadened every character’s horizons, all finding something within themselves that they didn’t know was there. Although this could be treacly in the wrong hands, Lambert and co-writer Michael Dowling give enough attention to every member of the large ensemble to earn these epiphanies and draw on the considerable strengths of a brilliant cast, made up mostly of actors usually consigned to supporting roles who manage to feel like leads in their own distinct movies without breaking apart from the ensemble. Hale and Burns, in particular, make a lively pair together once they’re marooned together in the chaos, effortlessly endearing and poignant as they realize they share in common a feeling of neglect deriving from what they love the most – in Lorraine’s case, her husband, and in Clark’s, the town.
While “Brave New Jersey” has plenty of fun for a contemporary audience looking back at a time when people didn’t know better, it has just as much to say about the feelings that never go away as time pushes on, giving the film as nice sense of melancholy to underline its bigger comic moments. (Naturally, a score co-composed by Dennis Lambert — with Matthew Logan Vasquez and Kelly Winrich — handles the tonal shifts with considerable finesse.) In a place where it doesn’t seem like there isn’t much to be excited about at first, Lambert proves otherwise by showing how the secrets we keep can make us just as unknown to one another as the aliens from above.