Black Flag. Sex Pistols. The Clash. The Ramones. The Stooges. The Vandals. R. Buckminster Fuller? Something doesn’t quite fit here, right? At first glance, the inclusion of Fuller in a row of punk rock elite seems utterly ridiculous until you realize that Fuller – a futurist, architect, and inventor – was the rebel of his age. He wanted to shake the establishment out of their preconceived notion of the world in the same way Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, and the rest wanted to turn the modernity on its ears. Seemingly, author Peter Bognanni noticed the intersectionality and used this as an inspiration to craft his youth-in-revolt Young Adult novel The House of Tomorrow. Given how popular YA-inspired films are these days, it’s with little shock that Tomorrow – itself rife with material about the internal struggle of youth against the repression of the establishment – finds itself heading into theaters. Adapted by first-time feature director Peter Livolsi, Tomorrow is a tale of two isolated boys struggling to take control of their lives that’s too clean-cut in its depiction of rebellion.
Sebastian Prendergast (Asa Butterfield) lives a simple and idyllic life with his grandmother, Josephine (Ellen Burstyn), running a tourist attraction focused on the teachings of her mentor, the prolific architect R. Buckminster Fuller. It’s a life filled with academic purpose as his grandmother grooms him to follow in the footsteps of Fuller, changing the world through ideas and invention. However, a life of academic pursuits has left Sebastian cut-off from the individuals his upbringing would have him influence. Sebastian’s polite and well-spoken, but largely lacking interpersonal skills beyond what hosting exhibit tours require. It’s fortuitous timing that Alan Whitcomb (Nick Offerman) arrives with a church group to tour the facility, his abrasive daughter Meredith (Maude Apatow) and combative punk-influenced son Jared (Alex Wolff) reluctantly in tow, as Josephine suffers a stroke and Sebastian finds himself in need of support. Alan graciously opens his home to Sebastian, creating a chance for this isolated young man to experience a world beyond the manifests of Buckminster Fuller.
Like a good punk song, Livolsi’s adaptation wastes zero time getting to the point. All the prime characters are refreshingly introduced and motivations set-up within the first ten minutes. No fluff, no fat, no extraneous plots of any kind – just the story of a kid on a collision course with his destiny. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Jared, too, is lost and isolated like Sebastian, though far more world-wise and weary. Theirs becomes a symbiotic relationship born of a need to feel connected, even if it means attaching themselves to someone so vastly different. Jared is the violate punk who rails against the dying of the light while Sebastian only sees the world through the teachings of Fuller – a combination that makes this unlikely duo remarkably fun to watch. With the story focused on them, Tomorrow excels, principally due to Butterfield’s and Wolff’s excellent chemistry.
By and large, without the leads, Tomorrow would feel far more mundane. Butterfield’s last two films in particular – The Space Between Us and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – found him leading the way, yet never feeling like a leading man. Here again, the same feeling is conveyed by his performance, though it’s never felt so perfect. Sebastian is confident, articulate, and educated, however, his lack of social skills and general awareness of social mores makes Butterfield’s signature stilted delivery and kinesthetic incredibly appropriate. Conversely, Alex Wolff (most recently of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) is engrossingly dynamic as Jared. Oscillating between great rage, frustration, and fear at the life he’s forced to live in recovery from a heart transplant – it’s no surprise that Jared takes Sebastian under his wing even while keeping him at arm’s length – Wolff is a cluster of raw nerves, and you feel every bit of his rage ooze out of him. Through a key line of dialogue, tossed off like bent chord in a melody, Jared’s only had the heart for six-months, making his recovery and isolation still new; his pain still fresh. Supporting these two is a cadre of talent that color the world of Tomorrow, serving to remind these two kids that they aren’t in the world alone, while also demonstrating that the past is not some idealized thing. Burstyn and Offerman represent the past – two figures who want the best for their respective wards, though they struggle to communicate what that means. With so little screen time, these highly-skilled actors convey an entire arc of development before the audience realizes it (again, a hat tip to Livolsi’s adapted script). Apatow’s role is frequently confusing, though that’s less to do with the performance and more with the structure of the narrative. Meredith as a character seems to represent the internal conflict we feel when we cling to the past while trying to move forward. In that regard, Apatow’s Meredith is more icon than fully-formed character, a great shame given the clear connection between her character and the two boys in their adolescent quest to break their proverbial bonds and run free.
The one down side of Tomorrow’s lean narrative approach is that while the core thematic elements are crystal clear, the mad dash to get to the inevitable resolution (Sebastian’s adolescent awakening) results in a journey that feels hastily pieced together. Sebastian – played perfectly by Butterfield – is a child of the world, but not in the world, so when he meets the Whitcomb family, he’s entranced by them for different reasons. Whether the book explores all of this or not is irrelevant because the film prefers subtext over actual action/reaction. In some areas, this choice of narrative subversion works quite nicely, as in the case with Michaela Watkins’s barely-there Mrs. Whitcomb, but when the audience needs to believe that Sebastian and Jared develop a grounded, honest relationship for the conclusion of Tomorrow to carry you off your feet, it just feels one-sided. Sebastian is enamored with a world just outside of his fingertips, while Jared hates the world because he’d been able to touch it freely and that ability was ripped from him when he required a heart transplant. What adds to the discord is the running use of music to aid in the transitions from scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment.
Taking its musical cues from the leads, there’s a running dissonance throughout Tomorrow which feels like an attempt to highlight the singular narrative themes of these characters as they come together. While frequently engaging, the shift in sound from orchestral wood instruments – representing Sebastian’s peaceful view – to the wailing screams of bands like The Germs (representing Jared’s enmity) makes it increasingly difficult to connect emotionally with the story. It’s an interesting aural choice that never seems to gel within Tomorrow.
The last few years have provided excellent YA stories – adapted or original. The recent Love, Simon and Saturday Church are stories of teens grappling with their sexuality, while The Edge of Seventeen tackled the perceived loneliness of adolescence. Though primarily through Sebastian’s academic-focused worldview which removes much of the grunge associated with teen stories, The House of Tomorrow is unabashedly honest and rife with the frustrations of adolescence. It may not make you want to rock the casbah, but you’ll definitely feel a lust for life.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.