“The Land of Steady Habits” is sobering, sad win for Netflix

This fall movie season sees a big change in pace for the world’s biggest streaming service. After garnering a justified reputation of throwing money at just about any bad genre film it can sell its binging audience, Netflix now wants to be in the industry of being a prestige Awards Season heavyweight studio.

The next three months will see the release of a Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn Sundance smash hit in “Private Life,” a Coen Brothers western with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a personal visual epic with Alfonso Cuaron’s Best Foreign Language Film submission “Roma,” and a resurrection of a long-lost passion project from the 70’s with Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind.”

Their stacked Awards Season line-up kicks off with Nicole Holofcener’s subtle and authentic follow-up to her 2013 gem “Enough Said,” aptly named “The Land of Steady Habits,” a title that refers to the state of Connecticut.

“Steady Habits” stars Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco, Thomas Mann, Connie Britton and Charlie Tahan. The film follows a middle-aged retiree Anders Hill as he desperately tries to create a new, fulfilling, happier life for himself after he leaves his wife and son in pursuit of a more dignifying purpose.

If your first thought was that that sounds like a horrible thing to do, you are correct- and Holofcener agrees. She always makes sure to put Anders in a conflicting light with the audience; though he is depressed and sympathetic, she never lets him off the hook (nor does anyone else in film) for his selfish and destructive behavior. He does things that at first strike as humorous, only to be later revealed to have tragic consequences. It’s a tonal tightrope that is hard to pull off yet Holofcener does it quite well.

The cluttered ensemble cast of characters include Anders’ newly-out-of- rehab twenty-something son Preston, his resilient ex-wife Helene, her overbearing and oblivious neighborhood friends Mitch and Sophie and their rebellious and troubled son Charlie. Though the characters are strong and interesting, the film’s short running time of 98 minutes proves too short to fully develop them.

Among all of the relationships that Holofcener explores here, by far the most interesting is the unlikely friendship that sparks between Anders and Charlie. While they only share three scenes, they are the most poignant and confrontational moments in the film where they explore the monotony of suburban life and the seemingly never-ending loop of human desire.

Some might view those moments as didactic but the dialogue is rich and the performances are lived-in enough for those moments to hit their intended impact without beating the audience over the head.

While “The Land of Steady Habits” likely won’t win any big awards for Netflix, it is a massive step in the right direction for them as a film distributor. It is a step away from the vapid genre fair into more an auteur-based world of genuine human stories. The climax of this film is gut- wrenching and dark but it uses such a strong moment to capitalize on its themes of fear and social stasis. One can only hope that a project this bold and real will be the new standard for Netflix.