Inevitably, there’s an image that writer/director Patrick Thomas Underwood keeps returning to in his debut feature “The Middle Distance,” but my mind kept wandering back there before his camera did. Shot mostly in a house that his main characters need to fix up before showing it to prospective buyers, the film makes the most of its snowy setting in New Buffalo, Michigan, often peering out the five windows that give the dining room some ambiance. At first, their black borders feel like bars that have imprisoned Neil (Ross Partridge), who fled this hometown of his for Los Angeles years ago, when contrast with the blinding white outside, and yet as the film wears on, they accrue and yin and yang type of harmony as Neil finds a sense of balance. The importance of the shot isn’t completely unexpected – Underwood and cinematographer Kevin Duggin subtly laying the groundwork by showing the life Neil leads in LA in the shadows, punctuated by punches of vivid blues, reds and yellows, before he’s blasted with light in the Midwest – but it is indicative of the elegance with which Underwood unfolds complex emotional ideas, almost never in the way you think, despite a familiar premise.
With his rugged charm and strong jawline, Partridge is tailor made to play Neil, though that may feel like a backhanded compliment considering the way that Underwood subverts those qualities to suggest that coasting on them is what’s likely holding him back. But it’s also why his return to New Buffalo is more of an inconvenience rather than a dreaded trip down memory lane after his father’s death, for the memories weren’t all that unpleasant. The memorial won’t be until the spring, his brother James (Kentucker Audley) tells him upon his arrival, but the imminent sale of the family’s idyllic estate beckons and after James announces he has to leave to play a gig, ironically after being the responsible sibling in the 15 years since their mother passed, Neil is left to do the repairs necessary to sell with James’ girlfriend Rebecca (Joslyn Jensen), who promises to help him in exchange for showing her around to work on a photography project.
There are traps all around for both the characters and the filmmakers as they proceed, with the latter evading them as deftly as Neil maneuvers around town in a golf cart after his car gets smothered by the snow. You could say both Rebecca and Neil are stuck in neutral, and with Jensen the closest she’s ever been to playing the sprightly ingenue that her pixie cut and wide-eyed winsomeness would have her typecast as after defying it in such dramas as “Without” and “Funny Bunny,” “The Middle Distance” is all set to follow the typically dire formula of Rebecca serving as the spark to light a fire under Neil to make some major life changes. But that street runs both ways, giving both Jensen and Partridge considerable dimension and a hard-earned dynamism to their time together. (Arguably, the film’s best scene involves a game of pool where the two talk about past relationships, with far less striking going on on the table in front of them than off of it.)
It’s an auspicious debut for Underwood, whose sharp eye for character and a distinctive visual style is evident from the film’s very first frame. Though a few character beats seem inconsistent with the overall picture, there’s a feel for the setting and the people at its center that is undeniable and true. For a film that’s set in the cold, “The Middle Distance” is awfully warm and once gets the sense this is a director who’s just heating up.