Review originally published September 12, 2011 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
"The Oranges" pokes at the very fabric of human relationships and structure, but in a good way. Is it a dark comedy? A dramatic thinker? I'm not at all sure, but again, that's a good thing, and innovation should be lauded. It's certainly a film that will make you question your previously held assumptions, provide some laughs, and perhaps make you squirm. IN A GOOD WAY. Sorry. Ran out of ways to get that point across.
Set in the suburbs, "The Oranges" sets up the familial drama in a straightforward manner. The Walling and Ostroff families live across the street from each other, and they're extremely tight-knit. Neighbors, each with kids, spending holidays and socializing, the dads are best friends and the kids all know each other well enough to have previously been best friends. Everyone is growing up though, and only Vanessa Walling (Alia Shawcat) remains in the nest, living with mom and dad. The Wallings parents (Catherine Keener and Hugh Laurie) are at the strained crossroads of a long-term relationship. Shawcat provides voice-over duties, though it's somewhat unclear as to why she's been chosen to helm the main narrative thrust, given the events that transpire. Regardless, her nemesis, Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester), is coming home for Thanksgiving after a recent relationship debacle ... and no one is quite sure how the new group dynamics will work. Both sets of parents (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney are the Ostroffs) would like to see the families become in-laws, as Toby Walling (Adam Brody) is single. It's a fervent hope, though things don't work out exactly the way the parents were hoping. By which I mean to say trouble is a brewin'. Big trouble in little suburbia!
To say more on this front would be poor form, so we can only delve into the rest of the film in the broadest possible manner. There are plenty of laughs, but more than a few life lessons to mull over. It plays out like a bizarro rom-com, the music and tone indicating we should be cheering on a new couple while our sense of personal appropriateness nags at our rah-rah emotions. It's a film about relationships of all kinds, neighborly ones, best friends, father-daughter, emerging dalliances, as well as the dreaded May-December version. On that front, what is it we find so unsettling about May-December romances? Is it the age disparity, automatically making the elder the "power" in the relationship? Is it the emphasis on physical beauty and youth of the younger party that causes people to reject these pairings? This is the central theme of "The Oranges", for better and worse, and it's both exciting and awkward, just like the generational gap it encapsulates.
With so many likable and talented actors on board it makes sense that the film largely works, even with the degree of difficulty involved. The concept of personal happiness is fully explored, as is the baggage we all bring into new relationships. What's most gratifying is how balanced the film is given the depth of the cast; sub-dynamics are explored, and no one feels superfluous to the storytelling technique. While more than a little subversive and mildly dark, "The Oranges", much like its central characters, has its heart in the right place.