It takes a certain amount of guts to give a film such a mundane setting, and the quiet, nearly music-free Getting to Know You has no sensational subject matter, like the drug trade, to draw the audience's attention. Still, Getting to Know You carefully and cagily gradually becomes an affecting look at lonely souls and wounded young people whose lives may be too small to be "tragic," but are no less poignant.
Based on several stories in Joyce Carol Oates' anthology Heat, Getting to Know You follows teenage siblings Judith (Heather Matarazzo) and Wesley (Zach Braff) as they prepare to go their separate ways, he en route to his first year of college and she on her way to a foster home. They while away the hours at the station until her bus arrives, and the film perfectly replicates the most dismal qualities of bus travel: the tedium, the unhealthy light, the coin-operated televisions and the uncomfortable chairs.
While waiting, Judith receives the unwelcome attentions of fast-talking Jimmy (Michael Weston), who claims to have attended her high school, although Wesley doesn't remember him. Against her better judgment, Judith allows herself to be engaged in conversation, and Jimmy begins spinning yarns -- possibly real, possibly improvised -- about bus station workers and fellow travelers.
The film brings us into these stories, so we learn, for instance, about a violent episode in the past of the station's kindly security guard (Bo Hopkins). Tristine Skyler, the director's sister and co-screenwriter, enters an Atlantic City romance with a high stakes gambler ("Sex & the City's" Chris Noth, looking entirely seedy). A bride (Mary McCormack) finds herself in the middle of a strange, hostile dynamic between her fanatical husband (Jacob Reynolds) and his unnerving son (deep-voiced Leo Burmester).
After a while, Judith begins taking over the stories, altering Jimmy's endings. Throughout we catch glimpses of Judith's memories of her parents and hints of strange conflicts, including an institutionalized mother and a father who's severed the family's ties in a heartless way. The film's last act reveals that story with Darrell (Mark Blum) and Trix (Bebe Neuwirth), as a pair of dancing showbiz wannabes, proving spectacularly unsuited for raising children. They're the kind of parents who go by their first names because they can't bear being addressed as "Mom" or "Dad."
Getting to Know You essentially seems a bit too formal and restrained, with images such as those of Darrell and Trix dancing in slow-motion seeming like flashback clichés. But by the end, we discover that Jimmy's fictions and Judith's family history inform each other more than we expect, and disparate elements of the story fit together in neat and rather moving ways.
It helps enormously that Judith is played by Heather Matarazzo, who we first met as the miserable adolescent Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Matarazzo perfectly conveys a young person's brow-furrowed consternation, donning put-upon expressions that suggest vulnerability, not sarcasm. And the ordinariness of the film's aesthetic requires an actress who doesn't look like a prom queen. Matarazzo's looks offer a sharp contrast to, say, the so-called "ugly" characters on the WB's teen shows, who tend to be strikingly attractive but don't have the supermodel features of those programs' leads.
Braff similarly conveys the left-brained bookishness of Judith's older brother, who's anything but a "funny" nerd. Weston's Jimmy seems more self-conscious, but the point of the character is to come on too strong with questionable sincerity. Neuwirth and Blum suggest two adults whose narcissism and love for each other -- and a good, stiff drink -- overpowers their parental instincts.
Skyler's low-key approach generates suspense as a couple of the vignettes build toward violent confrontations -- most notably McCormack's, which proves reminiscent of the Wes Bentley/Chris Cooper scenes of American Beauty. But mostly Getting to Know You has the same watchful, eavesdropping quality that we see in Judith and Wesley as they listen to their parents' arguments from the top of the stairs. The film's title may come from a Sound of Music song, but the knowledge Judith and the audience both gain provide only the coldest of comforts.