Set in Greenwich Village, in 1973 -- with a framing story 30 years later -- David Duchovny's debut as a writer/director revolves around 13-year-old Tommy Warshaw (Anton Yelchin), who lives with his melancholic, pill-popping mother (Téa Leoni), who can't get over her husband's death of one year ago.
He attends an all-boys Catholic school, has a crush on a girl, delivers meat for a libertine French woman who owns a butcher shop, and befriends a prisoner (Erykah Badu) at a woman's house of detention (she can see him through her jail-cell bars using a shard of broken mirror).
This is more than enough stuff to whip up a coming-of-age adventure, and by the time it's all over, Duchovny doesn't leave many heartstrings unpulled. As it turns out, the erudite X-Files actor -- who's a mere dissertation away from a Ph.D. in English -- is a better director than he is a writer: His 96-minute movie is an earnest little smile-jerker, permeated with sadness, that has enough quirks to keep an entire TV series running on fumes for five or six seasons.
House of D has the familiar muted visual warmth of a Manhattan depressive's apartment -- blue walls, no sunlight -- and Duchovny handles his actors well, especially Robin Williams, who plays -- how about this recipe for disaster -- a mentally challenged janitor. The coolly disaffected headmaster (Frank Langella) of Tommy's school talks with air quotes when he reads the Bible, and Tommy's pretty French teacher becomes the subject of the boys' linguistic puns, like when she uses the word bonheur, which means "happiness" (or as the boys say, "hap-penis), and which sounds suspiciously like "boner," a happy thing indeed when you're 13.
In House of D, the character of the young Tommy -- Duchovny plays him as an adult -- becomes a surprisingly captivating centerpiece among the sentiment and contrivance of the plot. He's a spirited kid who's not afraid of his imagination, and he engages the dreamy mnemonic New York City like an artist (which he becomes). When the adult Tommy returns home from Paris to find the women's prison replaced by a library and garden, Duchovny isn't content to let the audience nod knowingly. He points it out, just in case we missed the irony of this beautiful transformation. But he doesn't mention that they put the prison somewhere else, presumably in a neighborhood that hasn't yet been gentrified for the Village elite.
Williams plays his role in the lowest of keys, and Yelchin is a promising newcomer with a waggish charm. Duchovny, who has always been, shall we say, a placid presence on screen, permits himself one good cry. And Leoni, of course, is gorgeous: She's usually a bundle of nerves twitching with comic synapse, but this time she's jangled and exposed, the perfect casualty for a nascent writer looking for a third-act catalyst.