At Middleton is a modest movie with modest aims, but at times it feels like a small miracle. A daylong romance starring Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga as two parents who meet cute while their kids tour the same small college, it takes a relatively undistinguished premise and sets itself apart with details that ring true. It’s all fairly predictable enough. Edith (Farmiga) and George (Garcia) meet as they try for the same parking spot on the grounds of the titular, pastoral liberal arts institution; he’s the type who backs into a parking spot, while she’s the type who rolls in without looking to see if anyone else got there first. Their kids, of course, are immediately embarrassed. George’s son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) is a jockish type who thinks dad’s a total square, and Edith’s daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s sister) is an ambitious bookworm who thinks mom’s a loose-cannon weirdo. The kids are mostly right: Edith, who sells children’s furniture, is feisty and goofy and maybe a little nuts, and George, a heart surgeon, is buttoned-down and conservative and doesn’t like to rock the boat.
We’ve been trained, perhaps through the standard-issue plots of so many studio romantic comedies, to expect these kinds of movie relationships to go through a series of cumbersome challenges before our romantic heroes go from being antagonists to actually falling for each other. That makes for clean narrative lines, to be sure, but real life can be a bit messier. And for all their differences, George and Edith’s attraction is there right at the beginning: Even their initial parking-lot standoff has a certain charge to it. It’s an extremely subtle difference from the usual romance narrative — but it feels right. And it allows us to bask in their attraction without having to worry about how the movie will eventually bring them together.
And so, as the film moves briskly and efficiently along its predetermined path, there’s a welcome, lived-in quality to the emotions on display. Neither George nor Edith appears to be unhappily married. Rather, they’ve come to a place where the open field of possibility — social, romantic, intellectual — that confronts their kids starts to work its magic on them. The kids will be here for years. The parents will be here for basically a day. And so, the two adults split off and go on their own tour — sneaking peeks at freshmen making out in the library, stealing a pair of bikes and rolling around campus, and, in one particularly memorable moment, walking in on an acting class where they show the students rehearsing a scene of how real married couples act around dinner tables.
I don’t want to make too strong a case for this movie; it ain’t Brief Encounter. But still, it gets a lot of mileage out of its slight frame and bare-bones plot, in part because of its genuinely likable leads. Garcia probably isn’t the first name you’d think of when casting a preppy, straitlaced dad who has to discover his more playful side, but it’s actually a surprisingly good match. This actor has always had a certain inner lightheartedness, even when playing serious, brooding roles. (Think back to his dead-aim cop in The Untouchables, where he somehow managed to provide comic relief without ever cracking an actual joke.) Farmiga, for her part, gets the more showy role — she’s the “quirky” one — but here again we have a soft counter-current. If Garcia has always brought a subtle, playful quality to even his most serious roles, Farmiga has always had a certain gravity to hers; this movie felt like the first time in ages I’d seen her smile. If At Middleton did nothing else than get these two underutilized actors to charm us for 90 minutes, it would have already been a pleasurable experience; that it does so while also telling a simple, touching story feels like a genuine indulgence.