Yesteryear’s vision of the future proves poor preparation for present-day reality in “The House of Tomorrow.” Peter Livolsi’s first feature, adapted from Peter Bognanni’s novel, charts the first steps toward normal life for a sheltered youth raised by his elderly grandmother — a onetime acolyte of architect, inventor and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller. This tale of a shy teen loner using his newfound rebellious side to refigure peer and parental relationships occupies familiar seriocomic Amerindie terrain. But it’s a pleasing effort, with smart casting and a light touch that make the somewhat predictable story beats go down easily. Unlikely to create a major splash, the film nonetheless has the right stuff to attract older-skewing niche audiences in limited theatrical and ancillary release.
While Fuller’s long career (he died in 1983 at age 87) encompassed a wide range of ideas and achievements, the ever-forward thinker was most famous for his advocacy of the geodesic dome as an economical and ecological ideal for residential and other uses. The principal characters here not only occupy one such remaining original structure, they operate it as a public showcase for Fuller’s concepts. Josephine Prendergast (Ellen Burstyn) is still her late mentor’s fervent disciple, guiding tour groups of bored schoolkids and idly curious adults through the site. At best, they regard her as a mild eccentric; at worst, a crackpot.
Such perspectives are beyond the grasp of her grandson Sebastian (Asa Butterfield), whom she’s raised alone since his parents’ deaths in an accident long ago. Home-schooled, fed on a 1970s notion of health food, discouraged from any real involvement with the world outside their retro-futurist abode, Sebastian is a dutiful assistant/student/servant. He’s got just the vaguest sense that he might be missing out on something.
He gets a glimpse of what that is when a church youth group’s visit throws him into contact with the jaded but flirtatious Meredith (Maude Apatow) and suburban-punk contrarian Jared (Alex Wolff), the contentious offspring of club chaperone (and de facto single dad) Alan Whitcomb (Nick Offerman). When Josephine collapses mid-presentation with what turns out to be a stroke, the crisis forges a tentative bond between Sebastian and this discordant family of strangers.
Arm-twisted into befriending Sebastian by his dad, Jared at first treats him as an ATM; when Sebastian responds enthusiastically to punk rock music, Jared charges him for lessons. But Jared also has a less mercenary agenda: At risk of dying young due to a heart condition, he wants to form a punk band, and is willing to enlist any new members he can. Though the two boys superficially seem wildly dissimilar, they share territory as misfits, and soon they can scarcely spend enough time together. Sebastian is also intrigued by Meredith, who is adversarial toward her brother but gradually warms up to his new bestie.
Sebastian visits the Whitcombs on the sly at first, hatching bogus excuses to run “errands” away from his recuperating “Nana.” Having had no competitors for her grandson’s attention until now, she’s not happy with his growing independence, which leads to a falling out (and ultimate reconciliation). Though Burstyn (who executive produced) is in fine form as Josephine, and the whole “Bucky’s world” angle lends “Tomorrow” its novel hook, their central relationship isn’t wholly convincing: It feels more a matter of contrivance that Josephine should have maintained such an exclusive hold on her charge, or that he would be quite so naive about everything outside their little woodsy Minnesota domain. After all, Sebastian is just a short bike ride from town, and has home internet access besides.
More satisfying are the scenes with the Whitcombs, whose domestic lives are an ordinary kind of mess. Offerman is excellent as a father under pressure trying hard not to lose patience with two teenagers who actually have fairly good reasons — separated parents, looming mortality — for constantly acting out. Wolff is also particularly good in a potentially cliched mashup of “cool rebel kid” and “Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” though Livolsi can’t fully redeem the formulaic nature of a climax in which the lads debut their punk band.
The director exercises a genial restraint even during such conspicuous crowd-pleasing moments, maintaining a self-effacing focus on character and storytelling that eschews stylistic flourishes. The design contributions and tech assembly are likewise polished without being showy, an exception being the soundtrack inclusion of vintage punk/new wave tracks (by Black Flag, the Stranglers, Reckless Eric, etc.) that abet Rob Simonsen’s more subtly nuanced original score.
There’s also good use made of archival film footage and other materials that attest to the myriad achievements and utopian ideals of Fuller, whose vision of the future now seems both prescient and sad — the latter because society has ignored or bungled so many of the things he was prescient about, to its misfortune.