If you met Tom and he told you the years were flying by like hours, or he has to live each day like it’s his last one on Earth, he wouldn’t be merely engaging in inspirational-poster hyperbole. You see, Tom was born with an extremely rare condition that causes him to age four years, every hour on the hour. Imagine soaring from infancy to old age over the course of one day, even as you’re just learning about the world!
Tom is living Ferris Bueller’s One Day Off. He’s not Benjamin Button, he’s Benjamin One-and-Done.
This is the fascinating premise of the lovely and brilliant and poignant “Tom of Your Life,” a strong feature debut by writer-director Jer Sklar, who also stars as Tom from ages 28-104, and composed and performed the music with his band (the Blackstrap Molasses) for this indie gem, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he showed up every morning with coffee and donuts for the cast and crew.
I loved this movie and how it hits the ground running with its premise and trusts us to just go with it and not ask too many questions. I loved how it made great use of location shots in Door County, Wisconsin; the Full Moon Family Restaurant in Lake Bluff., Illinois, and a couple of very different types of shrines: Saint Vincent DePaul Catholic Church and the Inner Town Pub in Ukrainian Village. Mostly, though, I loved the skillful storytelling and the universally excellent performances from a cast of mostly unknowns who are playing authentic characters dealing with absurd, tragicomic circumstances.
Baize Buzan hits every acting note she reaches for in a memorably grounded performance as Jess, a nurse with shall we say a colorful past who kidnaps/rescues Tom shortly after his birth at a Wisconsin hospital, because she doesn’t want him to spend his only day of existence being prodded and poked and analyzed like a lab specimen. (There’s a convenient if convoluted little explanation that basically takes Tom’s parents out of the equation, which helps ease our concerns Jess is more villain than savior.) She tucks Tom into the back seat of her clunker car and starts heading to Chicago, where she has a half-baked plan about where to take him.
When we meet Tom, he’s 8 years old (and played by Judah Abner Paul), and filled with curiosity about the world.
“What are you eating?” he asks a man in a diner.
“Meat loaf,” comes the reply.
“What does it taste like?”
Pause. “A loaf of meat.”
Tom knows some things and doesn’t know other things. That’s just the way it is. He knows what a farm is, but he doesn’t know what a bug is. As he progresses through adolescence and his teenage years, he hears rock ’n’ roll for the first time, experiences a sexual awakening and takes the wheel of the car. (Director Sklar frames the road-trip transitions like postcards, with the bright colors of fall foliage reflecting the rapidly changing seasons in Tom’s compressed life.) Jess is barely able to keep it together as she juggles watching over and teaching Tom about life, taking steps to avoid the law (after all, she has committed a felony), trying to make contact with an ex at the University of Chicago who might be able to do something about Tom’s condition — and trying to stay sober, a real challenge for her.
Buzan’s work is even more impressive when you consider she’s interacting with one character, but four different actors play that character at various ages. Sklar does a fine job portraying Tom as a young man, Tom in middle age, Tom at 100 years old. (The makeup is first-rate and worthy of a big-budget Hollywood production.)
We know Tom is going to go through certain rites of passage and get into some dicey situations; the first time he sees a person of color, it’s on an L train, and he’s lucky his observation doesn’t get him bounced up and down the car. We’re not surprised the film touches on themes of faith and hope and love and despair. (There’s a lovely moment when the 96-year-old Chicago stage legend Mike Nussbaum makes a cameo as a priest who offers to help Tom.) Yet each stop on this unique journey is handled with humor and warmth and grace.
This is one of my favorite movies of 2020.