Inventor R. Buckminster Fuller graced the world with many challenging and interesting innovations and ideas. His work serves as the basis for a coming of age film that somehow combines the lonely outsider, sick kid and unauthorized punk band tropes. “The House of Tomorrow” wants to believe in wonder and saving the world. Yet, it also believes that grandparents don’t understand and kids just want to express themselves through punk music. The film has its heart in the right place. However, even at 85 minutes, it becomes a slog to get through the myriad of cliches.
Sebastian Prendergast (Asa Butterfield) spends his days in a faux-futuristic house from decades ago. He lives with his Grandma Josephine (Ellen Burstyn), who holds tours of the home for bored high schoolers on a field trip. While a local church visits the “House of Tomorrow,” Sebastian encounters Jared Whitcomb (Alex Wolff), a teen with a mean streak, and his sister, Meredith (Maude Apatow), another sullen, jaded teenager. When Josephine faints during the tour, Jared and Meredith’s father, Alan (Nick Offerman), the pastor of the church, invites Sebastian into their lives. Sebastian becomes friends with Jared, who he learns is on many medications as he recovers from a recent heart transplant. Jared encourages Sebastian to break free of his rigid Grandma and his devotion to science to form a punk band with him. Finally finding his first friend and hobby, Jared lies to his Grandma to pursue this new dream.
Asa Butterfield properly conveys Sebastian as a fish out of water in the normal world of the small suburban town of the Whitcombs. The movie likes to spend time showing how Jared and Meredith are annoyed and fascinated by Sebastian’s eccentricities. However, it does very little to fill in the gaps of what life was like for Sebastian in this house. His parents died when he was young and he was taken in by his Grandma, where he learned to revere Fuller’s work. Later moments of the film show Sebastian push back against her rigid rules about society. However, Butterfield and the film fail to paint a picture of the day to day life in the House of Tomorrow.
The cast finds ways to rise above the more cliched elements of the story. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn adds many shades to what could have been a one-note strict Grandma role. Josephine’s hard edge comes from years of activism that fails to produce widespread change. She devotes herself to saving the planet and creating a more sustainable future. However, this task becomes way too big for just her and her Grandson. Her devotion to Buckminster Fuller seems like a point to mock early on. However, the film manages to treat her with more compassion as it reveals more depths to her character.
We’ve seen a wealth of young actors having to play sick kids. One of the more successful teen films of the past few years was the cancer romance “The Fault in Our Stars.” While Alex Wolff doesn’t quite rise to the level of Shailene Woodly in that film, he sells the character, despite having some of the worst pieces of dialogue. Jared blurts out uncouth statements regarding his bowel movements, exploits his recent transplant for sympathy and isn’t above throwing the more than occasional tantrum. Especially in the character’s opening scenes, this comes across as repellant more for its baldness rather than the actual actions of the character. However, the final scenes really pay off for the character, as his love and connection to punk come full circle.
First-time director Peter Livolsi shows some skill in his debut. Specifically, moments inside the House of Tomorrow show some interest in staging scenes in a dynamic way. However, there are still more than a few kinks to iron out before his next outing. The film looks and feels like a low budget first try. The film slogs along as Livolsi moves us from one plot contrivance to another. This house seems to be the only thing that sets the film apart from other “fish out of water” kid stories. Livolsi, who adapted the script from Peter Bognanni’s book, appears to be too beholden to the source material. Everything that may work in book form seems stilted on film. The interactions and motivations of the characters feel spelled out and clunky. Even the gags involving Nick Offerman’s caring, yet out of touch Christian pastor Father, fall flat.
It takes a tremendous talent to make cheap sentimentality work. We’ve been privy to the awkward outsider, sick kid, “let’s form a band” narratives for countless decades. If one doesn’t have a new angle to work out, they need to be better than the films before it. There’s plenty of earnest heart behind the movie. Yet, that alone doesn’t make the film work.