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If it’s true that youth is wasted on the young, then so are friendly aliens.
Sure, the kids in E.T. had a great time with their pint-sized buddy from another planet, and so have countless other children in family-themed sci-fi films over the years. But it’s about time that seniors get in on the fun, and there’s plenty of it in Marc Turtletaub’s whimsical sci-fi dramedy that’s as much about the burdens and loneliness of old age as it is about extraterrestrial bonding. Featuring sterling performances from an uncharacteristically underplaying Ben Kingsley alongside Harriet Sansom Harris and Jane Curtin, Jules emerges as a low-key delight.
A heartwarming ‘E.T.’ for the senior set.
Release date: Friday, Aug. 11
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Jane Curtin, Jade Quon, Zoe Winters
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Screenwriter: Gavin Steckler
1 hour 27 minutes
Set in the sort of western Pennsylvanian town that has clearly seen better days, the story revolves around 78-year-old Milton (Kingsley), who lives alone and whose early signs of dementia are made evident by his repeated verbatim requests at town hall meetings that the town motto be changed and that a traffic light be installed at a busy crosswalk. Although his loving daughter Denise (Zoe Winters, Succession) pops by occasionally to lend support, Milton is living a very isolated existence.
That all changes with the crash landing of a flying saucer in his backyard late one night, which mainly upsets him because it’s destroyed his bushes. He attempts to notify the authorities, but the 911 operator doesn’t believe him. The next morning, he wakes up to discover the spaceship’s apparently sole inhabitant, a small, humanoid-like creature (Jade Quon) who seems terribly weak. Milton brings him a blanket and a glass of water and eventually invites him to his house, where he discovers that the alien has a taste for apples. Meanwhile, television news bulletins indicate that the government is searching for a “weather satellite” that crashed down somewhere in the vicinity.
Things get more complicated when fellow oldsters Sandy (Harris) and Joyce (Curtin) discover the alien guest in Milton’s house, whom Sandy promptly dubs “Jules.” The shy, gentle Jules proves a nice companion, sitting quietly with Milton watching television when he’s not outside attempting to repair his spaceship. Although he doesn’t speak himself, Jules listens very attentively to whomever is talking, his large blank eyes seeming to register comprehension.
“His eyes are so understanding!” Joyce exclaims, shortly before confiding in him and regaling him with a rendition of “Free Bird.” The three humans and their alien visitor soon form a deep bond, especially when Jules demonstrates his psychic powers by violently interceding when Sandy gets attacked by a man attempting to rob her. They resolve to help Jules fix his spaceship so he can return home, the necessary ingredient for which turns out to be dead cats.
Those last two plot details give you some idea of the quirkiness and dark humor of Gavin Steckler’s screenplay, which occasionally feels a bit over-the-top in its baroque flourishes. But it mainly works beautifully nonetheless, thanks to its movingly incisive depiction of the older characters, who all seemed spiritually adrift at first, bonding together over a common purpose. Even if it does involve hunting down cat carcasses to fuel a crashed spaceship.
Veteran film producer Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine, The Farewell) employs the same subtle, relaxed style as his last directorial effort, the underseen Puzzle, to excellent effect. Kingsley, outfitted with a horribly unflattering wig and glasses, never once winks to the audience with his dignified, unshowy performance that is all the more effective for its restraint. Harris and Curtin provide delightful support; the former’s hilarious double-take reaction to first encountering the alien visitor casually sitting on Milton’s sofa should be required viewing in comedy acting classes.
But the true acting honors go to Quon, a stunt performer (Transformers: The Last Knight, Iron Man 3) who delivers a wonderfully expressive physical turn despite not uttering a word and being covered in make-up and prosthetics. Her Jules is so touchingly endearing that it makes you wish that every lonely senior could have an alien friend to call their own.