At the beginning of this darkly funny adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' more or less autobiographical bestseller about growing up in two whacked-out families, 6-year-old Augusten (Jack Kaeding) is close as can be with his mom Deirdre (Annette Bening). While his usually absent dad Norman (Alec Baldwin) is too busy to give Deirdre the time of day, young Augusten is always there when she reads her new poems aloud -- to give, as she requests, his honest reaction. Hmmm, a 6-year-old critic.
He's also there when poor, delusional, not-very-talented Mom, who believes she was meant for greatness, is crying and needs a hug. This is usually after she reads from her self-published collection to a near-empty room or when she gets yet another in a long string of rejection letters from magazines.
Sometime later, 14-year-old Augusten (Joseph Cross), watching Mom and Dad still fighting after all these years, cries out, mostly to himself, "Why can't we just be a normal family?"
What, a psychiatrist might ask him, does he think "normal" is? Because living with these two parents -- Dad's now drinking heavily, Mom is still all wrapped up in herself -- gives him no clues. Instead, Mom's psychiatrist (or is he a psychologist? or is he even a doctor?) is asking her, whom he knows to be a devout fan of Anne Sexton, if she has suicidal thoughts.
As played by Brian Cox, Dr. Finch is one of the most colorful characters in Running With Scissors. He's much more interested in the sound of his own voice than anything his patients are saying. His sessions with Deirdre and Norman are ridiculous; his sessions with Deirdre and Augusten (it's never explained why the boy is in there) are absurd. But he sure is good at prescribing happy drugs and getting his patients to believe that his every word is gospel.
While Running is a collection of stories about dysfunctional people within dysfunctional families, it rises several notches above what's generally seen in Hollywood's coming-of-age movies.
Sometimes the dysfunction is revealed through people's behavior patterns: Dr. Finch's daughters, for example -- Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Hope (an underwritten Gwyneth Paltrow) -- have their share of quirks. His troubled stepson Neil Bookman (an unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes) has been hearing voices for years. His wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), after years of neglect, is reduced to staring blankly at a TV and snacking on kibble. Sometimes it's shown in the environs: The Finch home is painted pink and overrun with bizarre design ideas, inside and out. It's like the Addams Family house, only messier.
Augusten does some growing up in Dr. Finch's whacked-out domicile, even if he doesn't get any closer to the normalcy that he craves. It's here that he starts a journal (to which he often speaks aloud), gets close to Natalie, draws away from Mom and starts to build some dreams.
Although most of Running is told from Augusten's perspective, and even though his progression through the pothole-filled path of life is at its center, a great deal of the story keeps returning to Deirdre's progress as a struggling writer and woman. Cross (also currently in Flags of Our Fathers) is near-perfect is capturing the confusion of being a teen adrift in a crazy home life, and Bening expertly displays a handful of disparate characters all wrapped up in one desperate person. But acting honors go to Fiennes for coming across as the film's most complex and sympathetic character (and for possibly the best American accent ever to come out of a British thespian), and to Clayburgh, who plays the film's saddest character. Her Agnes is the one who admits that life has rushed by her, yet she's there to offer help when anyone needs it. There's an amazing sequence in which Clayburgh pulls off a 180-degree emotional turn with the camera trained on her face -- and without her saying a single word.
No matter how depressing this all sounds, the script's humor keeps peeking through in the most unexpected places. Truth be told, it's hard to figure out when it's OK to laugh. After all, the action in Running is seen through the eyes of a mixed-up 14-year-old boy. Everyone around him is leading a life without boundaries or structure. Everyone is screaming for help, and yet pop tunes from the '70s -- by Manfred Mann, the Average White Band, Phoebe Snow, Al Stewart (Year of the Cat accompanies the film's coolest sequence) -- keep the mood upbeat. We're all crazy anyway. What's not to laugh about?
RUNNING WITH SCISSORS
Written and Directed by Ryan Murphy
Starring Joseph Cross, Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Jill Clayburgh