'Tribes of Palos Verdes': Jennifer Garner on Character's Mental Illness
The actress, who also served as an executive producer on the IFC Films title, spoke to THR about the importance of telling women's stories.
The Tribes of Palos Verdes is a family drama told through the perspective of Maika Monroe's 16-year-old daughter Medina, who turns to surfing amid her parents splitting up and her tumultuous relationship with her mother (Jennifer Garner), finding comfort and inner strength in the waves. But Medina is just one of Tribes of Palos Verdes' forceful women.
The independent movie, which IFC Films is releasing in New York and on VOD and iTunes today (Dec. 1), features a powerful, emotional performance from Garner as Sandy Mason, a mom with an undiagnosed mental illness who becomes withdrawn and erratic as her husband (Justin Kirk) leaves her for another woman and Sandy's left to take care of Medina and twin brother Jim (Cody Fern).
Garner, who also served as an executive producer on the film, tells The Hollywood Reporter that producer Robbie Brenner, with whom she'd worked on Dallas Buyers Club, pushed her to take on the role.
"I loved the adaptation," Garner said of Karen Croner's screenplay based on Joy Nicholson's best-selling novel. "I loved the story. I loved the character. And then after years of talking to directors, being onboard, being offboard, finally [directors] Brendan and Emmett [Malloy] were part of the picture. And I was on the phone with Robbie, during a time when I was not connecting to the movie, and she just said, 'I am really sick of this, and I just want you to do it. And I just want you to say right now that you'll do it. And I'm gonna give you a start date, and let's make it happen.' And I said, 'OK' because she asked it like that."
As for developing the character, Garner and the Malloys relied on multiple resources, figuring out the various factors that could influence Sandy's behavior.
"She is so all over the place and there's even more of it in the book where we had to say, 'OK, what things about Sandy's character that exist in the book don't really serve this story of a family and what we can we lose and what do we need to play up.' We all spoke to various therapists and compared notes about what the root of her mental illness could be. We talked to people about how the gaslighting from her husband could make her crazy," Garner explains. "And then it was just making sure that we found a performance between the three of those things that the guys could modulate when they were editing because every scene could be just jumping off of a cliff, and we really had to play it so that we could go there over and over and over again and inure people to what was really happening with this family."
Brendan Malloy adds that they wanted to retain the book's lack of an expressed diagnosis for Sandy.
"In the book she's undiagnosed, and in the screenplay she's undiagnosed," he tells THR. "There are some people with mental disorders where they don't exactly know what it is and families are dealing with people and they don't exactly know what it is. So her being undiagnosed was something that we all wanted to have be part of the story. But we had to diagnose her so she knew what she was doing as a character and we all knew what she was doing, so we all decided collectively what her diagnosis was, what they'd been through, what she'd been through with her husband and kids in the past so we had a clear path going forward in terms of how we're approaching things."
And the directors saw Sandy as someone who "lacked awareness to know that she was the problem."
"She always felt that she was the victim, along with everybody else and it was not her that was the problem," Brendan Malloy adds. "That can be a common thing with some people who are going through some hard times and are not able to come out of those things. … So I think Sandy remained that way but she wasn't aware that she was the problem. It was always someone else's fault, and that was a characteristic that we think helped us get to the place where we got to."
At the end of the film, Sandy finally expresses "some loss and remorse, which I think was tough to find that throughout the whole first part of the movie," Emmett Malloy says, arguing that helps Medina on her journey as she finds herself.
"There's nothing harder than not feeling loved by your own mother. So much of the motivations of where [Medina] came from and why she had such a hard time fitting in are — if your own mother can't love you, who can? That's why we used the ocean, more than as a place where she could go surf, it was almost a place where she could be embraced and feel like someone accepted her and be hugged by the water in a way. And you're hoping that at the end that there's hope for her and that she's gonna do something great."
As women continue to fight for more equal representation both in front of and behind the camera, Garner joins the many high-profile actress-producers who are pushing for more films with women as the driving forces. And she points to Tribes of Palos Verdes as an example of a little film whose female producers powered it to the big screen.
"It's never been more important to make sure that we are telling women's stories and to make sure that women are part of telling them and having Robbie Brenner as the motor and the engine and the superhero of this film — her stamp is all over it and my manager, Nicole King, who executive produced as well — was such an engine just chugging uphill. This was a little rough-and-tumble movie. We didn't go back to our trailers between scenes. We were all kind of changing in one little bathroom at the same time and as quickly as we could to get the light that was coming in just right. And, in that way, the scrappiness of the movie translates into the closeness of the cast and to the familial bond but also into the claustrophobia of the house. And I think we can't be afraid of scrappy movies, and we can't be afraid of putting them in the hands of women."