Mayim Bialik is such an impressive and likable presence, from her first big splash on “Blossom” in the 1990s through a decade-long run on “The Big Bang Theory” to her gig as the primetime host of “Jeopardy!”, so we were really rooting for her feature writing-directing debut “As They Made Us.” But despite a stellar cast and Bialik showing a natural gift for pacing as a director, this is a depressingly downbeat story with Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen playing characters who are so thoroughly unlikeable and irredeemable, it’s almost uncomfortable every time they’re onscreen.
Dianna Agron (from “Glee”) delivers a sweet and natural performance as the repressed Abigail, a newly divorced mother of two young children who has spent her entire life at the beck and call of her parents: Barbara (Bergen), a domineering, pushy boor who doesn’t seem to have a kind bone in her body, and Eugene (Hoffman), who has a degenerative condition and is not going to get better. Barbara is in denial about the seriousness of Eugene’s illness, snapping at doctors when they deliver bad news and either berating or firing caregivers who are simply doing their job. (Her other passion seems to be engaging in mean-spirited gossip about everyone she knows.)
We can see there’s genuine love between Barbara and Eugene, and Hoffman and Bergen are wonderful together — but any empathy we might have for these characters is washed away when we see how horribly Barbara treats people in present day, and how awful it was for Abigail and her brother Nathan to grow up in a house where Eugene was verbally and physically abusive.
Quiver Distribution presents a film written and directed by Mayim Bialik. Rated R (for language). Running time: 96 minutes. Available Friday on demand.
When Nathan (played by Bialik’s “Big Bang Theory” co-star Simon Helberg) was old enough to leave, that’s just what he did — and for 20 years he has never looked back. We can understand why Nathan is estranged from his parents, who mocked his ambitions and couldn’t even be bothered to get to know the woman who would become his wife, but it just seems petty for Nathan to also cut off Abigail, whom he resents because she has never stood up to her parents.
This is the kind of movie where there’s a buildup to a birthday party and we just know something horrible is going to happen — and when it does, Barbara comes across as not only stubborn to the point of cruelty, but borderline racist as well. Meanwhile, we learn Nathan has become an esteemed professor and lecturer and he just happens to have a speaking gig in the area, and reluctantly agrees to pay a visit to his father at Abigail’s urging. What should have been a touching moment seems unearned and quite frankly implausible because we know of all the pain and suffering Eugene and Barbara inflicted on their children.
The dialogue in “As They Made Us” rings authentic and the performances are universally strong, but there’s a dour air to the proceedings, and we wind up thinking Abigail would have been better off if she, too, had left home the moment it was possible and had never looked back.