Meg Ryan directs and takes a supporting role in Ithaca, an adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy – her debut behind the camera. Ithaca may verge on over-sentimental, but it is a sweet-natured and well-meaning look at coping with change and transition on a backdrop of small-town America during World War II.
Ithaca follows fourteen year old telegraph delivery boy Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) during the early 1940s as the USA is making its first entry into World War II. The earnest Homer attempts to cope with the delivering telegrams of bad news – as well as the changes that war life has brought to his family and the small community of Ithaca.
Saroyan’s novel is adapted for the screen by Erik Jendresen who finds much narrative ground in the coming of age angle. Homer attends school, works at the telegram office, and supports his family after the loss of their father (Tom Hanks in a fleeting cameo) – as a protagonist he sees the good in most things with a childish optimism, something that slowly dwindles as the horrors of war become apparent to him when delivering death telegrams from the Secretary of War to unsuspecting families. This is a gradual transition that focuses on the shift from childhood to adulthood, but Ryan never allows Ithaca to become too downbeat or pensive ensuring the tone stays warm and endearing.
Ithaca also explores the good, honest people that make up the fabric of small town life – and whilst this sounds gushingly sentimental, it’s refreshing to see a narrative focused mostly on positivity – most of this depicted through teenage Homer. With the backdrop of hazy small-town USA filled with local shops and idyllic countryside (shot beautifully by cinematographer Andrew Dunn), it helps us buy into the sweet fantasy that Ryan depicts, despite Homer’s growing understanding of the grim realities of the world. John Mellencamp’s note-perfect soundtrack channels this narrative tract with utter perfection, exploring all from the moments of idealistic small town optimism to the harsh realities of war.
Ryan’s experience as an actor feels apparent in her direction of the film’s cast and their unique emotional arcs. There is something reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Alex Neustaedter’s lead performance with the young actor bringing an endearing earnestness to the fold as Homer. Neustaedter captures the shock and disappointment in Homer’s realisation that change is inevitable in an unjust world. Ryan’s supporting performance brings a maternal warmth to Ithaca and touches upon the difference between Mrs. Macauley’s quieter more acceptant attitude of the harsh world, contrasted with Homer’s initial optimistic approach. Sam Shepard lends further gravitas to Ithaca as a heavy-drinking, world-weary telegraph operator who drinks up a bond with the endearing Homer.
Ithaca may be over-sentimental for some audiences, but those willing to buy into this sweet-natured coming of age piece will be rewarded by its small-town charms. Delicate direction from Ryan complimented by a warming soundtrack and stellar performance from Neustaedter help Ithaca to soar.