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Review: Dianna Agron saves Mayim Bialik’s film directing debut ‘As They Made Us’

The family depicted in “As They Made Us” is unhappy in its own way, but even Tolstoy would have to admit that these folks aren’t as interesting as they could be.

Mayim Bialik’s feature writing and directing debut was inspired by some of her own relationships. The movie rings true, with just enough convincing, oddball details to distinguish it from the generic run of dying parent dramas. Still, this fictionalized family — let’s call them the fraying Frays — seems like it could have been imagined with more distinctive traits, anxieties and issues.

The film is worth watching thanks to a flawless central performance by “Glee” alum Dianna Agron, solid elder annoyance shtick from Candice Bergen and Dustin Hoffman, and Bialik’s “Big Bang Theory” co-star Simon Helberg locating his pain and relishing every minute of it.

Burlingame High School graduate Agron plays the stressed but resilient Abigail Fray, a divorced mother of two rambunctious boys with a nice enough ex (Charlie Weber) and a decent house, despite her only apparent income source being a column for Modern Jew magazine. She almost never works on that, by the way, and we can tell that her parents live modestly because Abi is always running over to their place.

Barbara Fray (Bergen) calls or texts whenever dad Eugene (Hoffman) falls and can’t get up, or she has to fire another caretaker because they gave Eugene pot gummies or something. The movie jumps around in time, from Abi and brother Nathan’s childhood with their combative, sometimes physically abusive parents, to various stages of the heroine’s adult life. Every period is marked by different problems with the elder Frays that all, more or less, play out the same.

Barbara is stubborn, often wrong, likes her wine and always says the most inappropriate things. That reaches an embarrassing/amusing peak when Mom calls while Abi tries to get her cute landscaper Jay (East Bay native Justin Chu Cary) to come on in her kitchen, but Barbara’s more often just flat-out appalling. Eugene’s mulish too, but grows vulnerable as his never-specified degenerative condition moves inexorably into its final, fatal stage.

Nathan, played by Helberg as an adult, cut out on the domestic drama 20 years earlier after Eugene slapped the lad for wanting to have sex with his girlfriend. Odd, since the parents aren’t religious and claim to be arty types from the Swinging ’60s, but we all have relatives who get weird over things they shouldn’t. Anyway, lots of Abi’s fixer energy goes toward luring Nathan home to reconcile with Dad before it’s too late.

There’s something admirably centered about Agron’s work. She waits until the last, logical moment to indulge in overt breakdown behavior, with a few nicely played steam-releases earlier on. Unlike her brother, Abi never lets well-earned exasperation with the elder Frays strangle her love, despite the many times they’re just asking to be throttled. Both Bergen and Hoffman strike the right notes of obnoxiousness, agony and regret whenever required. But they’re consummate pros plying their trade; Agron’s is the only organic presence.

With cinematographer David Feeney-Mosier, Bialik displays a subtle sense of lighting and composition that makes “As They Made Us” look like more than a TV movie. The material is the kind of stuff that TV actors would consider a creative stretch, but this is hardly “The Father.”

The project’s original title was “As Sick as They Made Us,” no doubt changed for reasons of taste. But if a dysfunctional family is going to make an impression, good taste should not be a factor.

L“As They Made Us”: Family drama. Starring Dianna Agron, Candice Bergen, Dustin Hoffman and Simon Helberg. Directed by Mayim Bialik. (R. 96 minutes.) Opens at the Summerfield Cinema in Santa Rosa and available through video on demand starting Friday, April 8.