Nick Flynn's dissolute father, Jonathan, long had been a presence in his absence. In his 2004 memoir, Another B- Night in Suck City, the younger Flynn evoked Dad, a con man and mythomaniac, as an Invisible Man who cast a giant shadow on the household where Nick's single mom raised him and his brother.
In his 20s, Nick - now a college dropout and drifter - gets a call from the Prodigal Father. Jonathan has been evicted from his boardinghouse. He asks - no, he demands - help moving his belongings to storage. It marks the first meeting between father and son since the boy was an infant.
Initially in the film Being Flynn, Paul Weitz's poignant and potent adaptation of the memoir that stars Paul Dano as the realist Nick and Robert De Niro as fantasist Jonathan, Dad is an absence in presence, a tinhorn who makes much noise and little sense. Like the book, the film alternates between father and son as each struggles for control of the family narrative, one that takes the viewer from the dark at the center of the emotional tunnel and inches toward the light at its end.
It's an involving journey, remarkably free of sentimentality, deepened by the performances of Dano, De Niro, Julianne Moore as Mother Flynn, Olivia Thirlby as Nick's sometimes girlfriend, and Wes Studi as Captain, director of a homeless shelter.
When next father and son meet, Nick is working at that shelter where Jonathan seeks a bed. The son's reflexive instinct is to avoid his estranged father, to abandon the elder Flynn as he abandoned Nick.
As with many De Niro performances, there is always the threat he might self-detonate. (Because Jonathan is a cabbie, the film has obvious echoes of Taxi Driver, and also of the mirror scene at the close of Raging Bull.) But Weitz isn't one for such in-your-face menace. He resists the temptation to frame the father/son scenes as confrontations.
Watchful Nick quietly observes Jonathan's emotional eruptions and negotiates his father as a soldier might a minefield. The effect is one of Dano (hollow-eyed son in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood) defusing rather than escalating the volatility of De Niro's character. And of giving the audience space and time to wonder whether De Niro's Jonathan is an alcoholic, delusional, suffering from dementia - or all of the above.
Weitz is a skillful writer/director whose best films (About a Boy and In Good Company) as well as his worst (Little Fockers) explore father/son relationships, surrogate and biological. (If you're about to ask, "Why didn't she mention A Better Life?" it's because that parent/child story was written and directed by Weitz's younger brother, and frequent collaborator, Chris.)
While Being Flynn is neither as experimental nor as impressionistic as its source, Weitz is a gifted visual storyteller who compresses a lot of emotional information into wordless sequences such as a flashback to Nick's youth where he plays catch with a series of "father figurines" while wondering about the absent Jonathan.
And once he meets Jonathan, Nick has to wonder whether his own attraction to storytelling is part of his genetic inheritance or if his father has been talking about the great American novel rather than actually writing it.
What's so satisfying about Weitz films like this one is how his lost boys and lost adults find themselves in the awkward dance of intimacy.
Will audiences find this low-key, high-impact story? I sure hope so.