It's easy to dread any movie that begins with a scene of two caustic rich kids attempting to suffocate a sleeping parent. "Igby Goes Down," however, has more on its mind than taking up the homicidal antiauthority poses of overrated generational "documents" like "Heathers." Its sensationalistic but necessary opening sequence out of the way, the movie turns into an affecting odyssey of juvenile awareness that instead deserves comparison to "The Graduate" -- a risky assertion at a time when that plaudit is being tossed around like candy. ("Moonlight Mile" who?)
Seventeen years old and proud of his record of being kicked out of "most of the schools on the East Coast," Igby Slocumb (Kieran Culkin) pursues chronic truancy as a means of rebellion. Specifically, he's thumbing his nose at his pill-popping, controlling mother (Susan Sarandon), but in general, he's rejecting the entire legacy of old-monied hypocrisy that's laid out before him. It's a destiny epitomized by Igby's older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), who has immersed himself in young-Republicanism. In their own ways, both boys are trying to shake off the blow of watching their schizophrenic father (Bill Pullman) slowly sink to hospitalization. So can we really assail Igby's decision to go AWOL from military school and pursue his disaffection in New York?
This is where the movie springs to life, with Igby encountering a cast of vividly portrayed characters. Jeff Goldblum plays Igby's oily godfather, a walking infomercial who conducts his business and family affairs by written contract. His material self-satisfaction is threatened when Igby becomes an unexpected rival for the attentions of his mistress (Amanda Peet), a dancer humiliated by her status as the other woman. Igby's best hopes for spiritual renewal, however, lie with student/budding earth mother Sookie Saperstein (Claire Danes), who can melt his self-protective cynicism with little more than a glance.
This year's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" showed that the terrific Culkin has the potential to redeem his entire family. (Next in line: Brother Rory, also impressive in his flashback role as the 10-year-old Igby.) But this movie's more familiar faces prove just as revelatory. Danes is a heartbreaker in every sense of the word, and Goldlbum's pitch-perfect lizardry shatters the preconception that his repertoire is limited to stammering nerds. Pullman's pathetic slide into madness, meanwhile, is the finest work he's ever done. Only Sarandon's performance takes a while to get cooking, at first hampered by that unfortunate affectation adopted by movie stars who mistakenly believe that playing lavishly rewarded pains-in-the-ass requires them to act.
Director/writer Burr Steers' film is crammed with developments that don't always ring logical; to stay with his story, you have to accept that anyone can do anything to anyone at any time, and trust the ensemble to make up in emotional resonance what the script lacks in clear-cut motivation. They do. By the movie's wrap-up, even the aforementioned matricide is not only explained but vindicated. A stealthy sensitivity makes the outwardly alienated "Igby Goes Down" a relentless up.