98 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, February 2, 2001
Adapted & directed by Adam Brooks
Starring Jordana Brewster, Christopher Eccleston, Cameron Diaz, Blythe Danner, Patrick Bergin, Moritz Bleibtreu
Beset teen travels Europe tracking events that led to sister's suicide in intelligent, engaging 'Circus'
Determined to get to the bottom of her happy hippie sister's inexplicable suicide, a wistful teenager (Jordana Brewster) travels to Europe in 1977 with a fist full of postcards she uses to trace what happened seven years before, during her older sibling's last days.
A fondly crafted adaptation of a Jennifer Egan novel, "The Invisible Circus" is an absorbing story about hope, youthful ardency and shattered illusions that creates a bonding empathy between the audience and its pensive young heroine.
As soon as she turns 18, Phoebe (Brewster), who has been haunted by her sister's death all throughout her teens, disappears from her San Francisco home, leaving her alienated mother (Blythe Danner) an apologetic note, and flies to Amsterdam with little more than a backpack and her tenacity.
Seeking anyone who might have known Faith (Cameron Diaz), Phoebe is frustrated by the first leg of her trip. But when she gets to Paris she encounters Wolf (Christopher Eccelston), the charming, quixotically idealistic, longhaired radical boyfriend Faith left home with in 1969 to try to change the world. Now a somber, shorn and crisply dressed gentleman with a fiancée and an upscale flat, Wolf reluctantly begins helping Phoebe piece together how her sister's life took a turn for the worse.
"We thought we could make a difference," he recalls with the melancholy weight of someone who has realized the futility of his utopian dreams. But it becomes clear through his flashbacks that Wolf's heart was never really in their altruistic ultraist efforts and that Faith's manic passion was more misguided than it was earnest.
"I was tired of doing crazy stuff," Wolf says. But Faith wanted to escalate their battles against the bourgeoisie and she lost control.
Phoebe has to pry this information from Wolf, who is reluctant to recall how Faith became a fringe anarchist willing to use extreme measures to make political statements. And what the girl hears does not fit well into her cherished memories of her sister, which are part of a cocktail of flashbacks throughout the film, including scenes of Faith's fated involvement with a dangerous radical movement in Berlin.
The film's strengths and weaknesses both emerge prominently during these scenes, as Phoebe convinces Wolf to travel with her to Portugal -- to the oceanside cliff where Faith committed suicide. As these two begin an ill advised but emotional fling, the performances of Brewster ("The Faculty") and Eccelston ("eXistenZ," "Elizabeth") deepen, revealing how their characters were both irreversibly and significantly altered by Faith's death.
Brewster is an especially strong lead, pulling the viewer into her beset character's quietly intelligent, intensely reflective world, and at the same time giving her a warmth and spirit that imply an optimistic strength of character. Even her narrative voice-over rings with authentically ponderous teenage musings.
But director Adam Brooks has a hard time maintaining the movie's structure when it comes to revealing how Faith's life took a wrong turn. Up to a point, her entire history is presented through the memories of Phoebe and Wolf, who is not all that forthcoming. Then suddenly "Invisible Circus" jerks backward for a whole reel, following Faith (and only Faith) through a downward spiral of radicalism in Berlin -- something neither of the main characters witnessed. So the question arises, whose flashback are we seeing here?
Phoebe is getting these stories second-hand from Wolf -- who, it is made clear, knew very little detail about Faith's days as an extremist. So this kind of complete and vivid recollection is way more information than Phoebe -- the audience's surrogate in the story -- would ever know. It's a jarring, unavoidable discrepancy that weakens the whole framework of the plot.
The one other significant problem with "The Invisible Circus" (what is with that tritely mysterious title, by the way?) is that the rebelliousness and the overall '60s mystique is a tad too orderly, clean and prefabricated to be entirely credible. The art director and costumer seem to be trying very hard to make the picture beautiful and freeing.
But if nothing else, "Invisible Circus" is worth seeing for the performances, which are emotionally truthful and hit home in a way that makes Phoebe's spiritual journey feel remarkably, refreshingly personal. Brewster has chops. I hope this film will allow her to graduate early from teen-targeted trash to more of this kind of cogitative character fare.