It’s an age-old story. You’re a starving artist in New York City. For you, catching a callback is like catching a fruit fly. In the dark. With a bucket on your head. You’re exhausted by the parade of bottomless auditions, the one-night stands and the uncomfortable mornings, the lack of human response. Sadly for our heroine, this is not the age-old story of a dreamer landing her big break in Winter’s Bone. This is the other age-old story: the one where the dreamer gives up and moves back home. From siblings, co-directors, and Pittsburghers Molly Donovan and Bailey Donovan, Back for Good is the charming, albeit predictable, story of Max Kelly (Molly Donovan), the ex-dreamer.
After finally scoring an agent, Max learns the agent has hung herself, an event Max attributes to her own bad luck. Later, she even laughs at the idea, a scene, I’m sure, meant to be humorous but I found to be a touch tasteless. Regardless, this is the push that brings her to her childhood home in Pittsburgh, where she is reunited with her quirky father (Peter Donovan), her estranged sister (Julia Warner), and her high school sweetheart (Ian Cramer). The city itself is presented through many effective establishing shots, appropriately, as Bailey Donovan calls the film “a very Pittsburgh production” before a screening at Point Park University. Max finally arrives in Brentwood with the intent of staying “for good.” And though she occupies herself with some new ventures, taking up running and singing with a local band, she begins to fall into the comfort of her old life, a routine that comes too easily. She’s spending an uncomfortable amount of time with her ex-boyfriend, Jesse, who is engaged, a detail Max chooses to ignore (in turn, a questionable decision I could not choose to ignore). In fact, one of the primary reasons Max returns home is because she receives an unexpected bouquet of flowers from Jesse for her birthday, something he hadn’t done for her before (questionable decisions all around). Because of their past, Max and Jesse’s closeness might be understandable. Oh, except that he’s engaged. To be married. I’m clarifying, because maybe it’s not clear to certain people whose agent killed herself (I’m allowed to joke about it because it’s fictional for me.) The fact that Jesse was so keen to abandon a lifelong commitment to another woman, a commitment he had made independently of Max, was a bit hard for me to swallow. I’m sure it happens, but in this case, it didn’t quite add up. And to twist that knife just a little more, Jesse’s fiancée, Jackie (Maggie Carr), is a kind, lovely person. I might be more accepting if she hated puppies and thin mints, but, as far as I know, that is not the case.
During one particularly unwieldy scene, Jesse brings Max home to his house. She immediately wanders into his bedroom, where Jesse feels it is propitious to whip out his break-up box filled with sentimental novelties from their relationship. As they reminisce on his bed, the audience is forced to think there can be no other outcome…can there? Ah, then, classically, the lights go out due to the raging storm outside. At this point, they relocate downstairs to a candlelit game of “Are you sure you like your fiancée?” hosted by Max Kelly. After Jesse reveals some qualities about Jackie he isn’t crazy about, Max dares to ask him: “What else do you not like about her?” Perhaps I only know aloof, passive-aggressive girls, but this inquiry was much too brazen to sound like a genuine question someone would ask her ex-boyfriend. On the whole, their interactions were unnatural and even caused some seat-squirming on my end.
At any rate, while that former relationship is revitalized, Max has trouble mending ties with her sister, Sarah. Sarah attempts to repair their lack of communication, offering Max a chance to perform in a local production. Max reveals she hasn’t been on stage for three years but reluctantly accepts, proceeding to have a panic attack after arriving for the audition in an incredibly quick-cut, well-edited scene fit for a horror movie. Though Max states she’d “rather live in Pittsburgh than die in New York,” she is forced to consider whether this actually is the ultimatum she must define and if she is even prepared to do that.
Besides some contrived dialogue and a couple improbable plot points, there were few moments I was reminded how very low-budget this film was. The production was also able to score some amazing alternative music donations from the likes of River City Extension, Recluse, Grand Piano, and many others. With a shining supporting cast and delightful performances, particularly from the Donovans’ real-life dad, Peter, who riddles the production with quality dad jokes (At one point, he is looking at old pictures and remarks, “I seem to have misplaced my hair.” Eh?), Ben Edelman as Sarah’s gay boyfriend (You did read that correctly.), and, of course, Ms. Donovan herself, Back for Good is a compelling love song to Pittsburgh and to nostalgia, a worthwhile watch to all the people who have questioned what they truly want out of life and how to get it (that means you).