There are moments in Spring Forward in which writer-director Tom Gilroy reaches for pure cinema—brief, non-narrative insets of everyday life in a Connecticut town much like the one where the filmmaker grew up. But Gilroy began his career in theater, and his feature debut is basically what’s called a two-hander: a vehicle for a pair of actors that could easily have been presented on a blank stage. Uptight Paul (Liev Schreiber) is an ex-con who reads self-help and spirituality books in an attempt to offset his disillusionment and rage; easygoing Murph (Ned Beatty) is Paul’s partner on his new job with the local parks-and-recreation department. As the title punningly indicates, the action begins in spring and moves forward. Gilroy actually shot in sequence and in season, calling his principal actors back periodically over the course of a year. This helps explain why none of the subsidiary characters—including Campbell Scott as an unctuous local aristocrat, Peri Gilpin as a potential love interest, and Ian Hart (who appeared with Gilroy in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom) as a disoriented guy living under the village-green bandstand—return for a second appearance. In the early episodes, the script seems a combination of Neil Simon and a New Age Paddy Chayefsky, but the latter style ultimately comes to dominate. The film’s surrogate father-son relationship deepens as questions of mortality arise and—not altogether convincingly—Murph comes to depend on Paul as much as Paul initially needed Murph. Ultimately, the effect is both darker and a bit more conventional than the opening scenes promise, but Gilroy’s strategy did achieve one of its aims: The film’s modest scale and deliberate pace allow Schreiber and Beatty to create the sort of lived-in characterizations rarely seen in flashier American films. —Mark Jenkins