Finding and watching a first-rate, out-of-theaters film is more often than not equal parts chore and risk. As I sunk into the sofa and surfed trailers on YouTube the other night, I came across “Rudderless” which proved to be exactly the sort of movie I hoped for. Many critics knock the little-noticed 2014 release as manipulative and even irritating. But the movie’s ethos reflects the generally understandable struggle of facing tragedy via the musical journey and transformative healing of a sonless father.
“Rudderless” begins with the terrible death of Josh (Miles Heizer), a college student and the son of Sam Manning (Billy Crudup). Grief causes Manning’s life to implode. Within a year, he downgrades from an enviable, opulent life as a wealthy advertising executive to a grungy, meager existence as a functioning alcoholic day-laborer living out of a sailboat. One day, Manning receives a visit from Emily (Felicity Huffman), his ex-wife and son’s mother. She announces her intentions to sell their old home and gives Manning several boxes of their sons musical equipment, recordings, and notebooks since, as Emily articulates, music was always “their thing.” But a guitar and a small collection of CDs changes Manning’s life. Listening to Josh’s recordings increasingly stuns Manning as he uncovers and experiences a previously hidden side of his son’s persona. When Manning decides at random to perform one of Josh’s songs at a local bar’s open-mic night, he deeply impresses Quentin (Anton Yelchin), an aimless, musically talented personality whose relentless nagging cajoles Manning to form a small band and perform more of Josh’s music. Before long, thanks to Quentin, Manning finds himself swept up in a jolting whirlwind of performances, beneficence, and memories.
Not only does William H. Macy deliver an exceptional directorial debut with this film, but the excellence of each actor’s performance blows other commensurately popular and emotional films out of the colloquial water. (Yelchin’s role as Quentin, in my opinion, is the best performance of the film.) Also, the thematic musical quality of “Rudderless” is difficult to adulate. Crudup’s tonal clarity and volume are remarkable, and, unsurprisingly, the vocal and instrumental talents of Ben Kweller, Ryan Dean, and Selena Gomez substantially aid the whole production. But the lyrically inspired, soul-soothing melodies in this drama (varying from potently emotional tracks like “Sing Along” to playful, upbeat numbers like a cover of “Wheels on the Bus”) independently make the movie a treasure. More specifically, the soundtrack mixes some mild indie qualities with an occasional hint of pop-punk producing something of a thrilling blend between Against The Current, Jack’s Mannequin, Mumford & Sons, and James Bay.
But, truthfully, plot-specific criticism of “Rudderless” is not entirely unmeritorious. The film’s storyline largely suffers from regular tempo fluctuations and excessively subtle plot progressions. Fortunately, Manning’s music considerably smoothens the intermittently awkward development and steadies the viewer’s attention on the message of his painful journey.
On my personal one-to-ten rating scale, the message and soundtrack of “Rudderless” earn an eight. Moreover, though I seldom enjoy seeing a movie more than once, this drama would lose none of its emotional power or empathetic draw from a rerun. “Rudderless” tells a simple yet meaningful story of the transition from heartbreaking grief to a life-restoring healing while displaying an original, impassioned soundtrack that effortlessly rouses an emotional resonance in anyone—even the most unentertained viewer—who has suffered any sort of personal tragedy.
Watch the trailer here.
See Rotten Tomatoes’ rating here.