Chris Terrio's Heights (adapted by Amy Fox from her stage play) tells an intriguing story of various people in Manhattan whose lives and relationships intersect in unexpected ways. The opening scene is a Julliard acting master class, with star actress Diana Lee (played by Glenn Close) interrupting two students needing improvement on their MacBeth scene, and giving an impassioned speech about how passion is missing from their performance, and from everybody's lives these days. "We put up bold fronts and a gracious face in response to seeing our husbands with other women, and then when no one is looking we cry into our soy latte," she bemoans. This set piece is of course the leitmotif for the film, as the teacher can act great Shakespeare but can't bring the advice to bear on her own life. We soon meet Diana's daughter, Isabel, a photographer, and her fiance Jonathan, a handsome Jewish professional, as well as Alec, an actor wanting to break out of the Fringe Festival, and Peter, the latest lover of the famous photographer Benjamin Stone, who has been given a tortuously cruel assignment by Vanity Fair. These characters are all going through the motions of their lives, strong gritty New Yorkers on the surface, but without passion, without really knowing themselves or those they love, and all with something eating them out from the inside. As their paths cross and their lives unravel all in one evening, it is like watching a windshield crack. One crack leads to the next, and the jagged patterns formed can fragment the light to a beautiful effect, but you can never look through the windshield the same way as before.
This film explores some of the same themes as Sideways. In Sideways, we had an actor and a poseur-writer representing the superficiality of Los Angeles culture. In Heights, we have an actress and a photographer symbolizing the contrast between appearances (or performances) and "real life" in New York City artsy circles. (The metaphor is artfully deployed, both in Glenn Close's master class scene, and later in a scene with Elizabeth Banks photographing a mother and daughter on the subway. The latter called to mind a line from Rent, "Hey artist, get your own life!", as well as other echoes from that play in which the filmmaker cannot see and the songwriter cannot hear.) The difference between Heights and Sideways is that in Heights, the characters have inner lives that we eventually get glimpses into, and can develop some sympathy for. These people are more real. Like Sideways, the setting in Heights is an essential part of the texture of the film. While the Santa Ynez wine country scenery in Sideways added a camp note to the underlying cynicism, the rooftop, skyline, and street scenes of Manhattan enhance the sense of disconnectedness-despite-proximity in Heights. Often, we only started to get inside the characters when they stepped outside onto the roof. The use of cell phones added a subtle ironic underscore to the same theme, especially between the engaged couple who carried "direct-connect" phones, while their emotional connections fall short of their technological ones. Ultimately, both Sideways and Heights end on a note of hope, but the hope at the end of Heights seems more genuinely promising, because the characters are more real.
The performances in the film were are top-notch, starting with Glenn Close brilliant as the diva who can express Shakespeare better than herself, with a strong exterior but vulnerable inside. Elizabeth Banks is flawless as Isabel, strong but lost and later shattered, and James Marsden is wonderful as Jonathan, who thinks he knows what he wants and has it, while Jesse Bradford is great as Alec, who knows what he wants but not how to get it. A number of good performances in other parts pull together a strong ensemble, beautifully woven together in Amy Fox's story and Chris Terrio's direction. It is beautifully filmed, and there are a number of great shots where looks and expressions convey volumes without words.