“Ithaca,” Meg Ryan’s directorial debut, is a quiet, bittersweet adaptation of the William Saroyan novel “The Human Comedy,” a story about a 14-year-old named Homer who delivers telegrams in the small town of the film’s title. It’s 1942, so many of those telegrams contain the worst possible news for the families of soldiers.
Tom Hanks teams up again with Ms. Ryan in the cast, she as Homer’s mother, he as the father who has recently died. This story, though, is the flip side of the war movies and mini-series Mr. Hanks is generally associated with — it’s a story of the home front, not of the cacophonous battlefields. In any case, Ms. Ryan and Mr. Hanks are bit players here; the real focus is Alex Neustaedter, a relative newcomer who does a creditable job as Homer (a role played by Mickey Rooney in a 1943 film version).
Homer’s older brother, Marcus (Jack Quaid, Ms. Ryan’s son), is off fighting, so there’s never much doubt about where this tale is going, and Ms. Ryandoesn’t try to spin it for suspense. She instead spends time on the details that make this a transformational period in Homer’s life: his relationship with his younger brother, Ulysses (Spencer Howell); his efforts to adapt to the drinking problem of the telegraph operator (Sam Shepard, in a fine performance).
Ms. Ryan’s muted approach may be what we’ve come to expect of looks back at this period — nostalgia always comes with a lot of browns and grays, and with plenty of voice-over (in this case, Marcus’s letters to Homer). But she executes the formula well.
“Ithaca” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) for themes of death and loss.