Finding amusement in the thin, flat tract of routinized suburbia called Long Island is easy. Finding poetry in that glacial deposit of post-World War II optimism just a few miles from Manhattan is where storytellers usually stumble. The less visionary settle for S.J. Perelman-like rue or more bitter satire. The more clear-sighted, like first-time feature director Eric Mendelsohn, in his haunting and hopeful ”Judy Berlin,” sustain a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like reverence for such dappled things as the fuzzy cry of Long Island Railroad whistles, the hushed moment when streetlights snap off at dawn, and the hum of vacuum cleaners as black housekeepers tidy the living rooms of their white employers. When I first saw this Proustian drama at Sundance a year ago, I liked it. On second viewing, I think I love it.
”Judy Berlin” is about fuzzy, hushed, humming moments of possibility experienced by an interrelated assortment of Long Islanders on an early autumn day when an eclipse upsets ordinary routine. It’s also, more specifically, about a sunny woman and a moony man who cross paths just as magically. In Mendelsohn’s astronomy, 30ish Judy herself (”The Sopranos”’ Edie Falco) represents the Island at its most resilient. Friend to everyone in her hometown, she’s a former tough girl and current aspiring actress with a mouthful of braces and no particular talent except for enthusiasm. (Her current acting gig has her pretending to milk cows in a historical village.) And on this day she’s saying her goodbyes before she tries her luck in Los Angeles.
Judy’s former high school classmate David Gold (Aaron Harnick) is a walking amalgam of everything arrested, depressed, and stultified from that same address — the lost boy who never grew up. An aspiring filmmaker, he went to L.A. only to return home, defeated, to his parents (Bob Dishy and the late Madeline Kahn, lyrical in her last role). Judy bubbles; David despairs, in Woody Allenish cadences. (Mendelsohn used to work as an assistant to Allen’s costumer.) Yin and yang, light and dark, night and day, the filmmaker balances the two with gyroscopic poise, while those around them weigh their own options for transformation.
Holding the movie together as much as the sweetness of the performances is cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf’s velvety black-and-white photography, which lavishes the same admiration on knick-knackery in the Golds’ living room as it does on trees swaying from the flapping wings of birds fleeing the approaching eclipse. But ”Judy Berlin”’s sustained loveliness and the graciousness with which Mendelsohn acknowledges what’s precious and what’s paralyzing about the place he comes from, well, that’s the filmmaker’s own gift from the suburbs.