There are not many ways to bridge themes of teenage friendship, environmental activism, broken families, health struggles and punk music in one narrative, but a new film by screenwriter and director Peter Livolsi, “The House of Tomorrow,” does just that. More impressively? It does it well.
Based on the novel by Peter Bognanni and supported by the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, “The House of Tomorrow” stars Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Nick Offerman, Maude Apatow and Ellen Burstyn. Alongside this all-star cast, select scenes of the movie are narrated by “Saturday Night Live” star Fred Armisen in the style of a Disneyland tour guide.
The title of the film misleadingly suggests the house’s centrality to the film’s narrative. In reality, the story is really about a relationship between two boys who are just trying to figure out how to form a band and handle life.
Sebastian Prendergast (Butterfield) lives with his activist grandmother, Josephine (Burstyn), in a geodesic dome house — which they call the “house of tomorrow” — located outside of their North Branch, Minnesota community. Welcoming all of their visitors with the phrase “welcome to the future,” the Prendergasts live away from the typical town life, instead studying the environment and practicing sustainable living.
Butterfield has mastered the quirky adolescent character. His resume of eccentric youths easily lends itself to his performance as the out-of-touch, naive Sebastian.
Sebastian’s entire life takes place inside the titular house; his schooling, his job and his family life all center on this strange “spaceship Earth.” This social separation causes him to be awkward, stiff and bland — a perfect foil to the colorful characters he meets while leading tours of the house.
One such visitor is the snarky Jared Whitcomb (Wolff), a green-haired, counter-culture, Converse-sporting teenager with affinities for punk music and getting into trouble. Jared’s character was notably well-developed by the writers and affably brought to life by Wolff, who provides a certain passion and realism in his portrayal of the edgy teen that not many actors could pull off without being overly dramatic or off-putting.
As Jared teaches Sebastian the ways of punk music and mischief under the unknowing supervision of Jared’s father (Offerman) and sister (Apatow), the two boys form a band and an out-of-the-ordinary friendship — which becomes the film’s effective emotional cornerstone.
While the environmentalism commentary is unexpectedly sparse, its undertones can be appreciated for existing at all. Though disappointing, this choice likely prevents the film from spreading itself too thin in its thematic coverage.
Yet the film smartly opens with gorgeous scenes of the nature-inspired, futuristic house. The composition of the intro sequence provides one of the most beautifully formulaic series of shots in the entire film, highly comparable to the likes of Wes Anderson for its brightly crafted visuals and complementary color palette.
The soundtrack ranges from the electronic, futuristic score to the thrashy, punky sounds that Jared brings into Sebastian’s life. Featuring classic punk bands such as Black Flag, the Stranglers and the Germs, its unapologetically angry and loud tones parallel the angst that resides in the spirits of our main characters.
In addition to these artists, Jared and Sebastian’s own fictional band is listed in the credits of the film for the songs they perform during the movie — “Stupid School” and “Going Mad Up In My Room” — which were both co-written by Bognanni. Even though they seem to be just-for-kicks additions to the film, the intense teenage angst and anti-establishment vein that runs through these characters is perfectly embodied by these songs.
Considering the only truly unsettling aspect of the film is seeing Nick Offerman without a mustache, the film exceeds expectations with the development and dynamism of its characters. Each character demonstrates positive growth by the end of the film, and the heartwarming relationships only make the story that much better, centering and grounding each theme the film tackles.
“The House of Tomorrow” is playing through Thursday at Shattuck Cinemas.