REVIEW: 'At Middleton' ★★★

"At Middleton" is formulaic and contrived. It's also worth seeing because it breathes a little, and because Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia know what they're doing as they guide this appealingly simple brief encounter of a romance.

Their characters, Edith and George, meet in the parking lot of fictional Middleton College, where they've come with their respective offspring for a tour. Both Edith and George are married, not miserably but not happily. Taissa Farmiga, Vera's younger (by 21 years) sister, plays Edith's daughter, and when the two actresses share a scene the familial resemblance — and the easy rapport, even when they're spitting nails at each other — accomplishes a lot in between the lines.

The lines were written by director Adam Rodgers and his co-author, Glenn German, and "At Middleton" follows a carefully prescribed narrative. The contrasts are established early and often. Edith, a seller of high-end furniture, is a two-stairs-at-a-time bounder-upper, more of a free spirit than bow-tied and slicked-back George, a cardiac surgeon. As their kids get to know each other on the college tour, the adults do too, on their own time and in their own way. Edith suggests "borrowing" a couple of bicycles for a while. Later they smoke marijuana with a couple of friendly students, one of whom they meet at a campus screening of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," that paragon of romantic longing in cinema.

Rodgers and German are interested in exploring the possibilities, in a cozy, middlebrow vein, of the campus setting, as the younger characters are beginning their adult lives and the older ones are beginning to question the solidity of their marriages. A lot of "At Middleton" (unfortunate title) feels slightly pushy in the comedy. It's the more plaintive exchanges between Farmiga and Garcia that provide the glue.

Shot on two separate campuses in the state of Washington, director Rodgers' feature film directorial debut was brought in for less than $3 million. The supporting cast includes Tom Skerritt, as a famous linguistics prof, and Peter Reigert, froggy-voiced and amusing as the campus radio station DJ. The music's a considerable plus; jazz veteran Arturo Sandoval composed the score, providing a rich variety of material, from lush strings (used sparingly, thank God) to catchy, bittersweet waltzes. Small as it is, the film itself functions as a catchy, bittersweet waltz. You've heard it before, but the dancers are fun to watch.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"At Middleton" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for drug use and brief sexuality)

Running time: 1:39

Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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