As The House of Tomorrow’s title suggests, the future, or prospective lack thereof, weighs heavily on the characters at the center of writer-director Peter Livolsi’s debut feature. Sebastian (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living a sheltered existence under his strict “Nana” Josephine (Ellen Burstyn), who’s raised him as an experiment of sorts: Not only has the teen been shaped by the futurist teachings of Buckminster Fuller, he also lives in one of the maverick scientist’s geodesic domes. But a chance encounter with Jared (Alex Wolff), an amateur musician who’s unsure that he’ll live long after receiving a heart transplant, leads Sebastian to start a punk band with his new friend, and in the process he discovers what teenage rebellion is all about.
In The House of Tomorrow, the cause-and-effect-relationship between personal belief—be it in Fuller’s teachings, Jared’s punk ethos, or the Christian philosophy embraced by Jared’s father, Alan (Nick Offerman)—and behavior is clearly understood. Livolsi, at his best, successfully incorporates multiple worldviews into the film without them feeling like affectations, though the exhilaration the characters feel in breaking free of predetermined roles is undermined at times by the film’s needlessly austere tone.
With a humanistic touch, Livolsi depicts people who never feel that they’re better than anyone else by virtue of their beliefs. Sebastian may live under the overbearing watch of Josephine, but his taking to Jared isn’t due to an outright rejection of his guardian. The film’s characters are bound by their shared repression, and Livolsi generously provides most of them with a moment during which they reflect upon past actions or ponder how to realize their present desires. At one point, Jared’s sister, Meredith (Maude Apatow), tells Sebastian that she regrets treating her brother poorly, despite not wanting to, because going against such normal sibling behavior would make Jared believe that she sees him differently because of his heart condition. This moment of complex emotional insight elevates Meredith beyond being more or less the object of Sebastian’s sexual awakening.
Throughout The House of Tomorrow, the gloomy matter of Jared’s persistent medical emergencies has a way of undercutting the film’s humor. Luckily, the sequence where Sebastian and Jared finally perform in front of an audience at the former’s geodesic dome home isn’t fraught with any sense of potential disaster. And by breathlessly juxtaposing the sequence with earlier moments from the film and archival footage of Fuller’s experiments, Livolsi shows how the preparation for the concert is an amalgamation and recontextualization of Sebastian’s past experiences. But the impressionistic tenor of these unabashedly energetic sequences is so wondrous that you may wish that Livolsi had utilized it as The House of Tomorrow’s guiding principle.