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Sam (Billy Crudup) is a lost man. A once successful advertising executive, he finds himself living on a boat, drunk more often than not, still reeling from his son’s death in a school shooting two years earlier. His ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) stops by one afternoon to drop off some of their son’s belongings, including music he recorded. Inspired by the songs, Sam performs them at an open mic night, where he meets Quentin (Anton Yelchin), an equally lost man who becomes so enamored with the music that he resorts to stalking Sam on his boat. The men soon form a band, Rudderless, that becomes a local hit, as Sam struggles to tell Quentin their songs were actually written by his dead son.

Rudderless could have been schmaltzy. It’s not—not by a long shot. Under the direction of first-timer William H. Macy, the film is quiet and restrained. There aren’t any traditional crowd-pleasing moments in Rudderless, yet the movie ends up a true crowd-pleaser. It examines how we deal with loss and grief and tragedy, and it does so with beautiful, haunting original songs composed by Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus. (The titular band also features Ben Kweller.) Music ties the narrative together—Sam and Quentin, each unsure of their places in the world, are at their happiest on stage. The mic is a means of expression for the otherwise shy Quentin. For Sam, it’s therapy. Either way, being on stage is a necessity. They don’t sing because they want to, they sing because they have to.

A stellar directorial debut for actor Macy, Rudderless is a confident and ambitious film that takes a nifty twist about halfway through, a sharp turn that subverts expectations. The result is a challenging experience that’s also damn entertaining. The performances are likewise outstanding. Crudup, 15 years removed from his Almost Famous rock star, carries the film, evoking sympathy without being maudlin. Huffman is great in her few scenes, playing a woman desperate for a normal life in the wake of her son’s death and her ex’s downward spiral. Her face reads complacency, but her eyes convey a deep sadness as she tries to keep her world from collapsing beneath her. Selena Gomez and Lawrence Fishburne round out the cast, putting in equally solid work as, respectively, Sam’s son’s girlfriend and a guitar shop owner who takes a liking to Sam.

So many movies made today feel manufactured, manipulating audiences with the cue of a pop song—Rudderless is not one of those movies. The soundtrack doesn’t cloy, instead advancing the story and highlighting the flaws of characters who could exist in my life, or your life, or anyone’s life, for that matter. Rudderless got a standing ovation at Sundance earlier this year, a telling reception for a film that ends on a sobering note. So heartfelt and raw that audiences cheer in spite of—or because of—the pain, the film makes a rare connection.

Director: William H. Macy
Writers: Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison, William H. Macy
Starring: Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fishburne, Jamie Chung
Release Date: Oct. 17, 2014

Andy Herren is an adjunct professor and occasional reality show winner. When he’s not lying to people on national television, he contributes to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter. Olive Penderghast is his soulmate.