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BERLIN – His weathered charisma and probing character work have made John Hawkes a Sundance favorite in films such as Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene and this year’s The Surrogate. But he struggles to bring much distinction to writer-director Olivia Silver’s modest Arcadia. The dramatically under-fueled coming-of-age road movie travels well-worn ground, focusing on a sensitive girl as she sifts through the pieces of her broken home.
It’s barely dawn when Tom (Hawkes) hustles 12-year-old Greta (Ryan Simpkins), her trusting little brother Nat (real-life sibling Ty Simpkins) and cynical older sister Caroline (Kendall Toole) into a beat-up station wagon to leave their New England home. As they set out for California, Tom provides only vague answers to the kids’ questions about when their mother will be joining them, claiming she is visiting their aunt.
Caroline is sullen about leaving behind her boyfriend. Greta has been away at camp. Alert to emotional undercurrents, she intuits that something unsettling has happened, clinging to her stuffed rabbit for security. Nat is just psyched to see the Grand Canyon. From the moment they set out, Tom works overtime to allay the children’s uncertainties by talking up the paradise awaiting them at their final destination. He promises horse-riding lessons, swimming pools, year-round sunshine, cool new friends and all the comforts his great new job can provide.
But their journey becomes a process of gradual awakening as they move from one charmless motel and cheap fast-food joint to the next. Tom’s battle to maintain his upbeat charade with them shows in snatches of angry overheard phone conversations and in his quarrelsome behavior with people they encounter, notably in a road-rage incident that risks serious consequences. A stopover with family friends in Oklahoma ends badly when their hosts question whether Tom is doing what’s best for his kids, and Caroline makes out with the couple’s teenage son, causing friction with her sister.
Tensions come to a head when Tom balks at the entry fee to the Grand Canyon and reneges on the promised visit. This causes a bitter confrontation with Greta, who abandons her bunny in an unsubtle metaphor for her farewell to innocence.
Premiered in the youth-oriented Generation section in Berlin, the gentle, melancholy film will perhaps speak to teens who can relate to the experiences here of family breakdown and the discovery of their parents’ flaws, particularly as the truth emerges about the kids’ mother. But Silver’s loose method of supplying information in fragments and oblique comments may also hinder the drama’s ability to connect with that young audience.
Shot on Super 16 (but shown in poor-quality low-resolution projection at a Berlin market screening), the film apes a familiar unmanicured indie aesthetic without much flair. Disappointingly, considering the terrain it crosses, there’s little feel for landscape or location. There are problematic pacing issues, too, resulting in a road movie with long inert patches and little momentum.
The troubled father role makes not the most ideal use of Hawkes’ rough-hewn persona. It’s hard to empathize much with moody Tom when he spends most of the movie either withholding, straining to ingratiate himself with his kids, obstinately ignoring their fears or lashing out in irritation. The characters overall lack definition, and the writer-director is only moderately successful at accessing the pathos of a story that should be steeped in it. But there are tender moments from all four key cast members, particularly Ryan Simpkins, whose sweet fragility gives the film some heart.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation)
Production companies: Poisson Rouge Pictures, DViant Films, in association with Madrose Productions, Shrink Media Entertainment
Cast: John Hawkes, Ryan Simpkins, Kendall Toole, Ty Simpkins
Director-screenwriter: Olivia Silver
Producer: Julien Favre, Silenn Thomas, Jai Stefan
Executive producer: Jeremy Bailer
Director of photography: Eric Lin
Production designer: Adriana Serrano
Music: The Low Anthem
Costume designer: Kim H. Ngo
Editor: Jennifer Lee
No rating, 91 minutes
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