At first, the editing in Debra Eisenstadt’s “Imaginary Order” seems so harsh it’s cruel, cutting out much of the time Cathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) spends ensuring that her family is well taken care of and she doesn’t look like she’s ever breaking a sweat. The fact that standing on a scale is part of her morning routine suggests otherwise, but when she delivers an ornate cake to raise money for the middle school her daughter Tara (Kate Alberts) attends or makes breakfast for her husband Matthew (Steve Little), you only see what they do – the end result and little else, with each cut seemingly getting closer to Cathy’s nerves as a lack of attention has become equal to a lack of appreciation.
Of course, in her ferociously funny fourth feature, Eisenstadt is considerably more admiring of Cathy, if not necessarily convinced that she can easily change up her lot in life. Still, you can see what Cathy does when she starts cat-sitting for her sister Gail (Catherine Curtin) as she becomes fascinated with the family dynamics of the Rhodes, an obviously broken clan that lives next door. having put so much effort into insuring her family doesn’t look like this one, they don’t seem be all that worse off than hers is, despite the fact their matriarch Gemma Jean (Christine Woods) usually be seen with runny mascara and some liquor at her fingertips and her aloof husband Paul (Graham Sibley) hangs out inside the house, seemingly wondering what he’s done with his life while their teenage son Xander (Max Burkholder) eagerly shames them at every opportunity for their failure as parents.
When a chance encounter with Gemma Jean leads to getting to know the Rhodes a little more, Cathy is ready to let a little of their life rub off on her, free to think about herself for a change rather than others, but in watching her start to take a few of Gemma Jean’s painkillers to take the edge off and smoking her cigarettes, Eisenstadt crafts a wicked “grass is always greener” fable that benefits greatly from the writer/director’s mordant wit and showcasing the range of McLendon-Covey, whose poise and porcelain features make it particularly fun to see Cathy crack. While Cathy contracts a staph infection after getting scratched by her sister’s cat, it is her increasing involvement in the Rhodes’ affairs that threatens to overtake her, especially when the family begins to come into contact with her own, spreading their influence like sepsis.
Eisenstadt shrewdly doesn’t ever let anything seem as if it’s unmanageable for Cathy, instead wondering if it’d be good for her to let certain things go and in forcing Cathy to see beyond her routine, having long ago established how she could live life on her terms after not necessarily having a choice on what direction her life would go, the point that she may have been just as oblivious as anyone else in her family to actually take notice of them, even while catering to their needs, is as sharp as any of the film’s humor. Technically, the film doesn’t hide the fact that it appears to have been shot on a shoestring, but that rawness can be easily overlooked with how strong the writing is and in fact can often complement the narrative as Cathy’s illusions about herself begin to be exposed. It’s Eisenstadt’s perspective that proves most distinctive and by the time “Imaginary Order” ends, even if the characters struggle to see the full picture, it’s as energizing to see how well she does, bringing it all into focus.
“Imaginary Order” will screen at Sundance on January 31st at 9:30 pm at the Eccles Theatre and February 1st at 11:30 am at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.