As I begin preparing to review some films at next week’s annual Provincetown International Film Festival, I’m also recalling some films that I enjoyed most in the festival’s previous years. Back in 2005, I remember loving the festival’s closing night selection, Chris Terrio’s Heights, which also received the festival’s HBO Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature that year. Terrio has gone on to great acclaim in the decade since then, winning an Oscar for writing the adapted screenplay of Ben Affleck’s Argo. Earlier in his career, Terrio also worked as an assistant to James Ivory of the production team Merchant Ivory, so he was offered the opportunity to direct Heights because the late Ismail Merchant was producing it.
A fast-paced, stylish story of the intersecting lives and loves of an enclave of artsy, upper-crust New Yorkers, Heights is a finely balanced ensemble piece that focuses closely and intelligently on its characters. Having watched the film a few times since originally seeing it in 2005, I’d say now that the movie is actually about its performances. The film’s screenplay was adapted (and expanded) by Amy Fox from her 2000 one-act play of the same title, which centered on a rooftop confrontation between its three main characters. For the film, Fox constructed the story leading up to that climactic scene, adding a number of characters to enliven the story along the way. Terrio then gave the movie’s actors plenty of leeway to help craft and integrate those additional characters, and in some cases the actors even made decisions that altered the various directions of the plot.
The main connecting point in Heights is Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a young photographer who’s experiencing some frustrations over her work and romantic life. She’s engaged to be imminently married to Jonathan (James Marsden), a handsome attorney who’s also clearly experiencing some frustrations of his own. Early in the film, it’s revealed that Jonathan had some past professional involvements with a famous photographer named Benjamin Stone. A museum retrospective of Stone’s work is about to be mounted; many of its images are of beautiful young men, in the style of fashion photographers like Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber. Stone has sent his boyfriend Peter (John Light) from London to New York to track down and interview the photographs’ subjects, most of whom are Stone’s ex-boyfriends, for a Vanity Fair article that will promote the exhibition.
The intrigues only deepen from there. A struggling young stage actor named Alec, played by Jesse Bradford, happens to live in the same apartment building as Isabel and Jonathan. Years ago, when I first saw boyish Jesse Bradford starring in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent 1993 family drama King of the Hill, I knew that he’d grow up to land a mesmerizing role like Alec someday. Alec auditions for a new play that’s to be directed by superstar actress — and Isabel’s mother — Diana Lee, portrayed as just over-the-top enough by Glenn Close, in full-on diva mode.
Post-audition, Diana admits to Alec that she thinks he’s adorable and invites him to her Macbeth dress rehearsal that afternoon, as well as to a party that she's hosting at her home later that evening. She justifies her interest in Alec due to her husband’s infidelity with her own Lady Macbeth understudy, effectively opening their marriage. Diana’s consoled by her Macbeth director and longtime friend Henry (Eric Bogosian), who’s more interested in the hunky stagehands himself.
Heights is obviously a tricky movie to synopsize. Terrio’s use of split-screen diptychs in a few select scenes highlights this complexity. A handful of secrets are also divulged as the film unfolds, though some viewers may predict its plot twists long before they’re unveiled. While I was engaged enough by the characters and story to be surprised by the turns when I first saw the film, I once showed the movie to a date who had figured out everything less than halfway through it.
But again, the performances for me are the film’s real focus. James Marsden’s brooding Jonathan needs to be more gorgeous and transfixing than the women in the movie for several key reasons, and he and his tireless cheekbones unassumingly rise to the occasion. Elizabeth Banks also feels just right to me as Isabel; she’s the character whose interior life matters the most to the audience in the end, and she believably embodies a wide range of emotional states and subtle changes that would be difficult for any actress to inhabit. In an especially powerful scene when she makes the mistake of taking an impromptu subway photograph of a woman who’s gently stroking her daughter’s hair, Banks gradually builds up to the moment in a way that reveals how much her character is longing for a life that’s different from the one she has.
Many of the film’s smaller performances and cameos are equally riveting. What a fun little bonus the musician Rufus Wainwright is as Jeremy, one of Benjamin Stone’s many exes. Rufus has no problem whatsoever slipping into the role of a jaded, chain-smoking young queen — and one who hilariously hits on Peter (without success) while being interviewed by him. Screen veterans like Isabella Rossellini, as the no-nonsense editor of Vanity Fair, and George Segal, as Jonathan’s patient and supportive rabbi, make colorful appearances, too. Even The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons shows up briefly as Alec’s chatty gay sidekick at a nighttime catering gig.
New York City, and its vast yet close-knit underground of interconnected subcultures, becomes an important character itself as the film progresses. I’m peripherally familiar with the New York art and theater worlds, and the film’s representation of them feels dramatically heightened but also fairly accurate: everybody knows everybody, or knows somebody who knows everybody. The lapidary structure of Heights plays around with that notion quite adeptly, so it’s clear that Fox and Terrio were both at ease with and critical of that social terrain; the big party scene at Diana’s ritzy penthouse probably illustrates this best. Jim Denault’s subdued yet dazzling cinematography also offers some sweeping views of the city at dusk, dawn, and in between.
As for the aforementioned plot twists, I’d rather leave those undisclosed here, since they were certainly surprises for me on an initial viewing. Let’s just say that the riddle of sexual identity in contemporary metropolitan life threads itself skillfully into the tale, and that the ever-complicated figure of the closet won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Nevertheless, characters both younger and older are left with potentially reassuring resolutions and hopeful futures.