For her directorial debut, Mayim Bialik — the neuroscientist, sitcom star, and finalist for the “Jeopardy!” host gig — hewed to what she knew: reckoning with the legacy of volatile parents.
At the start of her smartly observed, well-cast drama “As They Made Us,” a young Abigail and her brother, Nathan, listen from the back seat of a car while their parents downshift into a nasty argument. It’s clearly not a one-off. The youngsters appear in flashbacks illuminating the power of their parents’ undiagnosed mental illness to shape the adults they become — especially Abigail (Dianna Agron).
Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen portray the parents as they were — when eruptions of violence and stubborn denial were routine — and as they are now. Eugene is suffering a degenerative condition that exacerbates confusion; Barbara, so uncomfortable with vulnerability, doubles down on control even as she leans on Abigail.
Abigail has two children, has been divorced a year and is a columnist for a glossy magazine, The Modern Jew. She’s smart, overtaxed and a textbook dutiful daughter. Decades earlier, Nathan (Simon Helberg) high-tailed it and remains estranged.
Bialik gets adroit work from the ensemble. Helberg brings moving nuance to Nathan’s sullen reckoning. Justin Chu Cary keeps Abigail’s love interest on the grown-up side of what could have been a too-good-to-be true character. Still, even with veterans like Hoffman and Bergen, it’s Agron’s film. She and Bialik make Abigail’s filial loyalty as sympathetic as it is exasperating, and as rife with difficult truths about aging as it is understatedly hopeful about growing up.