Here comes a witty, smart, perfectly cast and delicately executed romance of the heart between two unhappily married strangers who meet for one day on a college campus. That's before the story dives into clichés and ridiculous theatrics involving parents gone wild.
Adam Rodgers' movie takes place on the fictional campus of Middleton College where a stuffy heart surgeon named George (Andy Garcia in a bow tie) drags his unsure son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) to orientation at the same time a sassy furniture store owner named Edith (Vera Farmiga) has her testy daughter (Taissa Farmiga, actually Vera's younger sibling) in tow.
After some initial probes of each other's personalities, George and Edith veer off on their own campus tour, slowly and joyfully discovering they share the same sense of humor. They are both married, but unhappy, and they bond on an emotional level rendered with gentle tenderness by Rodgers' and Glenn German's literate and thoughtful screenplay.
At one point, Edith and George perform the classic "Chopsticks" on an available piano, and their duet becomes a perfect metaphor for the merger of their souls. Their obvious joy at discovering each other, however, is surrounded by a sadness, for they both know this day of grateful fulfillment cannot last.
Tragically, "At Middleton" runs out of plot and dramatic steam, so the filmmakers fall back on strained moments involving George and Edith sharing a bong with random students, and having the couple improvise scenes from an unhappy marriage for a theater class they've crashed.
Garcia and Farmiga share a kinetic chemistry that survives this rough patch. Their savvy characters salvage "At Middleton" with a bittersweet appreciation for life, albeit a brief encounter on an afternoon.
Rodgers and cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh also display a knack for telling visuals, as in one scene where George symbolically distances himself from Edith by moving from a shared park bench to an adjacent bench.
Those small touches add up to an honest, moving romance that works -- despite the parents gone wild.
"At Middleton" opens this weekend at South Barrington 30. Rated R for drug use and sexual situations. 100 minutes. ★ ★ ★