Pictured: Leo and Nolan, Roberto Aguire and Robin Williams.

Pictured: Leo and Nolan, Roberto Aguire and Robin Williams in “Boulevard.”
Photo Credit: DP Chung Hoon Chung.

“You drive down a street one night…that’s how life goes sometimes.” If you’re a loan officer, happily married to all intents and purposes for 26 years, the road should be solid pavement beneath your wheels. But for Nolan Mack, that one street he describes will signal a seismic change in his life, and nothing will ever be the same again.

In Boulevard, a current Spotlight entry in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Robin Williams gives one of the richest and most riveting portrayals of his career. It’s also a heartrending glimpse into the life of a man who has followed the straight and narrow, and finally suffocating, path of normalcy without complaint. But one night his car almost hits a young hustler and he tries, innocently enough, to make amends.

The hustler Leo, as played by newcomer Roberto Aguire, has the face of a Caravaggio youth and an adolescent angularity to his frame that gives easy inspiration to Nolan’s suppressed fantasies. When Nolan follows the boy back to a nearby motel, he only wants to look, not touch. On a repeat encounter, when he yearns for a simple embrace, Leo is quick to reject any sentimental overture. “That’s how it goes,” he replies bluntly.

The director, Dito Montiel and screenwriter Douglas Soesbe have been careful to provide us with a film about a man who may be wrestling with his inner life, but he is not desperate. He has a loving wife (played seamlessly by Kathy Baker), a life partner who shares his interests. At one point when he catches Joy watching a familiar foreign film — Truffaut’s Masculine and Feminine — he says, “You always watch that.” “Because it’s you,” she admits. He’s on the verge of a promotion at work. He has a long time buddy who shares lunches with him, an affectionately jocular turn by TV’s Breaking Bad lawyer Bob Odenkirk. In fact, it is Nolan as the everyman, filling up his days the only way he knows how, that gives the film such a universal resonance.

Montiel, in his Q&A notes on the film, makes his position clear. He related his surprise when his parents divorced and his mother told him, “Well, just because I’m 70, I’m not dead.” He thought about how hard it would be for a guy like Nolan to change. “It’s a story about how do you let go than it is a triumphant coming-out film.”

The tenderness and tentativeness between Nolan and Joy is almost palpable. They sleep in separate beds and lead separate lives and yet, they would never consciously hurt one another. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Joy in realizing her husband is slipping away from her, begs him to share her bed. He lies down, fully clothed, and in spooning-fashion, they go to sleep like children afraid of what the night will bring.

The pairing of Williams and Baker in the leading roles is what gives this film the heft and lyricism that make it unforgettable. It is one of the finest examples of the struggles faced by the human heart that viewers have not witnessed in a long time. One is reminded of such films as A Single Man with Colin Firth and Far from Heaven starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid. But even with these films, the choices made were more clear-cut. Firth as a gay man knew how to satisfy his loneliness and Quaid was simply living a double-life, ready to face the inevitable consequences.

Williams gives us a man in Nolan who suffers quietly within and will go to all lengths to do the right thing. His versatility as an actor has never been in question. From Academy nominations and awards for his work in Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam to his irrepressible Mrs. Doubtfire, he never ceases to surprise and delight. As Nolan, it’s the subtlety of a man at odds with himself that truly shows his genius.

Baker is well-known to TV audiences for her award-winning work in the series Picket Fences, but she has also distinguished herself in numerous film roles as well, such as The Cider House Rules, Street Smart and Clean and Sober, among many others. Here, as the ever-faithful wife, she is the salt-of-the-earth. Baker has never been a Hollywood-style beauty but it’s the still, immutable power of the Great Plains woman in her face that is so compelling. Her brand of honesty in every interaction with her co-star makes this a perfect coupling.

And what about the hustler — could we ever believe this sad and sullen young man who has given up on any kind of redemption could come between a couple like Nolan and Joy? Of course not, and that’s what gives the script its lasting power. According to Montiel, Leo doesn’t understand Nolan’s generosity toward him. “There was no way to open him (Leo) up — you might tap at the ice but it’s not going to crack, and it’s clear the character of Nolan is not the one that was going to crack Leo in this film.”

Yet Nolan still tries. It is his idea of who Leo could be that holds sway over his sensibilities. “You came here for a reason — it can’t be nothing,” he says. Leo retorts, “It can be, because it means nothing.” When Leo walks out of his life, he has no way of knowing if there will even be another Leo in his life, but as he tells Joy, “it’s time to be in the real world.”

There’s a quiet unraveling of the story, a slow insistence in letting the pieces of the puzzle fall where they may that holds sway in this film. The closest the film comes to any real brutality is in Nolan’s confrontation with Leo’s pimp. He suddenly becomes, at the risk of a shiner, almost the protective father-figure. And it is totally believable in Williams’ portrayal that sex is not the issue at all — for Leo, yes, it’s all he understands, but for Nolan, a longing for connection is everything. It’s not a film for the more prurient tastes, which is all the better. Because Nolan could be the man next door, the man that never acts on a secret desire, and will never do so, unless the accident of a boulevard encounter should occur, forcing him to acknowledge the truth in his own soul. And it may be those audience members — the Nolans of this world — that will walk away, looking at the road not taken in a new way.

Apart from this beautifully crafted feature film, Montiel also wrote A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a memoir detailing his life growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York. The film premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize and the Director’s Award. His other film releases include Fighting, starring Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard, as well as a police drama, The Son of No One, chronicling the life of two boys growing up in his hometown. One can only hope this film will receive the critical attention it deserves, as Montiel is a young director who is not afraid to take on the bumpy issues of the boulevard we all face at one time or another.

Rating: 4+ stars out of 4

“Boulevard” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. For more information about the film, please click here.

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