The mother from The Goldbergs starring in a suburban comedy may sound like the sort of mainstream Hollywood studio fair that doesn’t go to Sundance. The tone of Imaginary Order makes Sundance the right place for it to find an audience and I’m glad I found it there.
Cathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is trying to hold her family together. Piano stingers make her daily routine montages feel dire. She’s cat sitting for her mom when she meets Gemma Jean (Christine Woods) across the courtyard. When Cathy sleeps with Gemma Jean’s husband, Gemma Jean’s son Xander (Max Burkholder) blackmails Cathy threatening to tell her husband Matthew (Steve Little).
Writer/director Debra Eisenstadt only gives us snippets of interactions between characters. Some are short, some are long. That avoids letting anything become a typical comedy set piece and keeps the audience off kilter trying to guess what becomes the focus. The truth is, everything is the focus and nothing is more important, although Xander’s efforts do have a way of monopolizing Cathy’s attention.
Some of the brief interactions between Cathy and Matthew inform what drove her to make some of her decisions. There is a reason for everyone’s behavior, and those reasons are the things not dealt with.
There’s comedy in the awkward situations this creates. It’s way more awkward than Curb Your Enthusiasm awkward comedy because every character is an agent of awkwardness, and each one has conviction. Each character gets more and more outrageous too. For Gemma Jean, that’s starting at a 10 and going to 20. For Cathy it’s maybe edging closer and closer to 10.
McLendon-Covey is as great at this subtle characterization as she is with big broad characters in more traditional comedies we’ve seen. Little gets to be sympathetic. Woods and Burkholder reveal the reasons for their characters’ outrageousness. Eisenstadt created a tone that fascinated me at first and had me gripped by the end. I will definitely watch her other movies to see more in the style of Imaginary Order.