The recipe for a satisfying young adult feature contains several essential ingredients, including a sheltered adolescent fashioning an independent personality outside the home, a cocksure rebel, a sick kid, a cute romantic ingénue, oppressive adults, a mix of laughs, tissues and rock ’n’ roll.
Overcook the mixture with sentimentality and the result can be soppy mush. But admiringly, “The House of Tomorrow” spices up its story with dollops of honesty, charm and a dash of genuine emotional resonance.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Macalester College literature professor Peter Bognanni and filmed in Minnesota, its main concern is that even in relationships we hold dear, we may follow competing paths toward the future.
Asa Butterfield plays 16-year-old Sebastian Prendergast, who has been reared by his Nana Josephine (Ellen Burstyn) in North Branch, Minn., under circumstances both optimistic and a bit odd. Half a century ago, she was an ardent pupil of the forward-looking engineer Buckminster Fuller. He saw “Spaceship Earth” as a large mechanical device that, like an auto, periodically must be tuned, with new materials replacing the inefficient old.
For the past decade, Josephine has home-schooled Sebastian, focusing on Fuller’s Utopian vision. Raising the boy in one of Fuller’s spherical geodesic-dome houses, Josephine hopes Sebastian will carry the inventor’s romantic message that the world, with proper technology and planning, could be a paradise.
Josephine’s rural home offers little social contact beyond occasional tours where visitors can examine the grand architectural gem (with not a single interior column!), and watch videos instilling Fuller’s philosophy. Nana lectures the guests, sharing memories about her friendly mentor-and-follower bond with the great man.
When Sebastian is pulled into conversation by standard suburban kids, he speaks to them like a shy, polite Martian. Not at all polite, shy or sheltered is Jared (an engaging turn by Alex Wolff, who was utterly believable playing a Boston Marathon terrorist in “Patriots Day”). He’s a green-haired punk-star-in-training who uses his bedroom to mutter and swear and occasionally perform. He’s brought to the dome one day with a group of kids overseen by his mid-divorce father (Nick Offerman in solid comedy-drama form).
It’s not the dome but the smart, mildly weird Sebastian who captures Jared’s attention. They form an alliance. Hiding their partnership’s goals and their need to rip off free instruments from the grown-ups, the duo invents their own worlds of tomorrow, tossing plans aside and starting over as needed. Bucky Fuller, if he knew, might be impressed. Their families, not so much, though you do come away with a feeling that these characters understand and love each other as best they can, each performer bringing more to the screen than the film sets up for them.
Jared and his father are part of an evangelical group. Neither one is born again, but the community offers a pleasant place for them to maintain their relationship. “The House of Tomorrow” offers realistic representations of challenging physical and emotional issues, yet it’s a crowd-pleaser rather than a gloomy film. It’s less a valentine to an American cultural icon than an endorsement of Fuller’s core philosophy: making the most of your life, whatever others might expect.