There's this fantastical film made a few years ago called Neverwas that, aptly, almost never was. While it had an all-star cast, the movie never saw the light of day, save a screening at TIFF and some releases outside of North America. After a few years in the never-ether, the film is finally getting an absolutely bare-bones release on DVD. The directorial debut of Joshua Michael Stern, who previously penned a little-known thriller called Skeletons, Neverwas is the next generation of Hook. If you think back to 1991, you might remember when Robin Williams was a grown-up Peter Pan, heading back to Neverland. Although the green-tighted hero was played by an adult, Hook was definitely a clear-cut family film. Neverwas, on the other hand, has its grown-up hero, but it is not the children's film that it seems to be.
Aaron Eckhart plays Zach Riley, an up-and-coming psychiatrist who is adamant to take a job at a mental institution, and convinces the head doctor (William Hurt) to hire him. One of his patients is Gabriel Finch (Ian McKellen), a strange old man who is convinced that Zach is Zachary Small, a children's book hero who will help him save his kingdom of Neverwas. He is partially right -- Zach's father was the book's writer, T.L. Pierson (Nick Nolte), and he used his son as the model for the heroic character. Pierson is actually the reason for Zach's interest in the hospital. The writer suffered from depression, and killed himself while Zach was still a boy. Years later, Zach is haunted by his memories of his father, surely amplified by the reminders around him, and the fact that Pierson spent time in the same institution.
Beyond his troubled patients, who also include the angst-ridden Alan Cumming, Zach becomes completely immersed in his past. He visits his mother (Jessica Lange), and also runs into an old friend, Ally (Brittany Murphy), who happens to be a huge fan of the Neverwas series. While Zach's days are spent working, each insomnia-filled night takes him one step further into his unresolved feelings for his father. In the darkness, he pours over pieces of his father's institution file -- an old recording made during Pierson's stay at the institution, and an aged journal. As Zach becomes increasingly obsessed with the past, and with Neverwas, Gabriel's ravings begin to seem real, and Neverwas might actually exist.
On one hand, the film is a dark, adult drama about a man trying to come to terms with the skeletons of his youth. Zach often thinks back to his father's struggles – from drug-filled nights to the discovery of his father's suicide. Intermingled with the turmoil of his patients, there is an on-going, eerie edge to the film. At the same time, however, there's this cheery fantasy feel. You keep expecting Zach to find a real fairy kingdom and once again become Zachary Small, the young hero. Having these dual themes makes the film hard to categorize, and it is no wonder that it was never released. Neverwas is a little too fairytale-hopeful for adult audiences, and darkly adult for children.
Undoubtedly, many parents will pick this disc up, see the hopeful, saccharine faces of Eckhart, Murphy and McKellen, and think this the perfect family film for a Friday night. Yet I'm sure that as the first hour runs by, the kid's will be asleep and the parents will wonder what in the world they're watching. Neverwas isn't a terrible movie, nor is it great. It is a fairly engaging story that suffers from its plot, existing in this limbo between a children's film of hope and an adult film of drama, thereby alienating itself from both audiences.