J.P. Chan’s A Picture of You is unsure of what it wants to be at first. Its opening is almost soap-y in its melodramatic on-the-nose presentation of a bickering adult brother and sister, Jen and Kyle (played by, respectively, Jo Mei and Andrew Pang) whose mother has died and they take a weekend trip to her house in Connecticut to pack up her belongings. Kyle has a lot of resentment because he was the one who nursed their mother (Jodi Long, who manages to be evocative and powerful in her few flashback scenes, shown in fragments) through her final illness. Jen checked out of her responsibilities. She’s got a busy life in the city, a boyfriend, she thought there would be more time. The siblings, holed up in the gigantic house in the woods, packing up the china and all the books, are in a state of simmering tension that sometimes explodes. It’s all rather conventional.
Until … it isn’t. The film switches mood a quarter of the way through and becomes practically a screwball comedy, something that its opening scenes do not suggest at all. When the tone veers, it takes a while to adjust. But it’s worth while to make it through the somewhat soap-y opening scenes because it’s in the screwball sections that A Picture of You is revealed as the small weird gem that it is.
In going through their mother’s computer, Jen and Kyle come across three images, hidden in a folder. The images completely shatter, to say the least, their conception of their dead mother. They are both titillated, ashamed, and shocked. The discovery bonds them together, although they disagree on what they should do about it, and, more importantly, what it means. How could their mother hide such a secret? The discovery of these photos is when A Picture of You takes off.
Coming up to help them pack is Doug (Lucas Dixon), Jen’s hipster boyfriend, and Jen’s friend Mika (Teyonah Parris, who is currently killing it on Survivor’s Remorse). Doug and Mika emerge from their rental car into the woods like the disoriented urbanites that they are. Kyle and Jen do not fill in Mika and Doug on what they discovered about their mother. That’s private family business! Kyle is in recovery from a divorce, and is (in general) bitter and uptight. Mika and Doug try to be friendly to him, and he snarls in response. But a little weed starts to loosen things up, and then the film goes off the rails, beautifully, as those hidden photos of Mom start to work their screwball magic.
This is a small ensemble picture. What’s great is that I was not familiar with the acting of any of them, so I had no preconceived notions about who they were. It left the discovery process wide open. Doug, trying to make a good impression on Kyle (whom he considers to be his future brother-in-law, although he hasn’t proposed to Jen yet) is both awkward and clueless. There are times when he is downright inappropriate. He doesn’t seem to comprehend what the death of a parent means. But he’s not a bad guy. Mika emerges as her own beautiful self, funny and smart, and you get a real sense of the very real friendship between these two women.
Where the film goes is completely unexpected, involving a stakeout (“Why are we all wearing black?” asks Doug from the back seat) and creeping through the woods en masse, along with other absurdist scenes, including a running joke about how everyone in town assumes that Jen and Kyle must be so-and-so’s kids … because … they’re Asian. A waiter at the local diner says to Jen and Kyle while serving them, “Are you so-and-so’s kids?” Jen snaps, “Are you racially profiling us?” The poor guy says, “No. I was at the funeral. I met you both. I’m sorry for your loss,” leaving both Jen and Kyle mortified. These types of scenes, loose and chaotic, make A Picture of You its own unique thing, after a shaky start. It’s truly funny at times, hovered over by the memory of Kyle and Jen’s mother, biking through the wooded hilly roads of her Connecticut neighborhood, with a sense of freedom and childlike abandon. Jen and Kyle never knew THAT woman.
Jo Mei (who also wrote the script with Chan) emerges as the real star here, giving us a woman who could be a cliche, a sort of Manhattan-ized eye-rolling selfish Carrie Bradshaw type, interested only in the surface of life, but Mei allows us to see that as the pose that it is. Jen is a MESS, and so angry at herself for not being there for her mother in her final illness that she can’t allow herself to grieve at all. And not allowing herself to grieve means she can’t be present. She can’t be a sister to Kyle, a girlfriend to Doug, or a friend to Mika. That journey of Jen’s, from the over-it pose to the practically screwball reality (and grief can be quite screwball, as you know if you’ve been through it), is the real story of the film.
Stick out those first 20 minutes. A Picture of You is worth it.