'Boundaries': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/Lindsay Elliott
A top-flight cast can't patch over the contrivances in this unlikely-reconciliation dramedy.

Christopher Plummer plays Vera Farmiga's n'er-do-well dad in the road movie by Shana Feste.

A family-therapy road trip in which the key to getting along appears to be forgetting everything you've learned about life, Shana Feste's Boundaries casts Vera Farmiga as a woman who just can't abandon the old man (Christopher Plummer) who abandoned her time and time again through her life. However well-worn the format, the intense distress of Farmiga's performance suits the director's personal investment in the tale's specifics. But a fantastic cast doing fine work can't make this feel-good hokum believable, and most viewers who walk away satisfied are those who'd happily watch any new Plummer vehicle, just to celebrate the actor's enduring vitality and charm. 

We meet Farmiga's Laura in her therapist's office, where her two big issues are set out clearly. Though her father makes constant efforts to get in touch, he is incapable of meeting her emotional needs, and every interaction turns to heartbreak. And, as a neglected child, she now is addicted to rescuing animals. There's a kitten hiding in her purse right now, the therapist notes — despite the promises Laura has made to adopt only one a month — and her house is a menagerie whose photogenic assortment of cute misfit dogs and cats seems calculated to keep us from gagging at the thought of what it all smells like.

Laura's son Henry (Lewis MacDougall), whose own father Leonard (Bobby Cannavale) left years ago, is fine with all the animals and their individual medical needs. But he's less good with humans, and has just been expelled from school, partly thanks to his habit of drawing underground-comix-style portraits of teachers with no clothes on. He's going to have to switch to an expensive private school that can address his needs, and Laura doesn't have the money. After hitting up the ultrarich old friend who's also her boss and being rebuffed (the woman and her daughter are Mylar-thin caricatures of moneyed self-centeredness), she decides Dad's the only option.

Conveniently, old Jack has just been evicted from his rest home for having a hidden cannabis nursery, so he needs a favor in return. I'll give you the money if you let me move in with you, he tells Laura. She counters his offer: Though Laura's big Seattle house has plenty of room, she arranges for Jack to move into his other daughter JoJo's (Kristen Schaal) Los Angeles studio apartment, where he'll have to share a futon with her. The only way to make sense of this is to understand that the movie needs Laura, Henry and Jack to be stuck in a car together for the long ride down the Pacific coast.

The resulting picaresque finds roguish Jack insisting on a string of pit stops along the highway, both to visit disreputable old buddies (like an art forger played by Christopher Lloyd) and to "change my diaper" at seaside rest areas. Laura doesn't realize that these stops are drug deals: Jack has filled his bags with weed, and arranged to meet buyers at all these spots.

Again, the requirements of genre trump narrative logic: Despite Henry's fierce protectiveness of his mother, Feste needs him to bond with the grandpa who has hurt her throughout his life. So she has Jack make Henry his dope-slinging confederate, even though this is a one-man job. Henry enjoys the illicit responsibility, and hides things from Laura with unlikely ease.

The arrangement falls apart when Jack insists on an overnight stay in Sausalito with Leonard. Ostensibly another drug deal, this is mostly a chance to show how bad Laura continues to be at looking out for herself. At this point, some in the audience will be ready to give up on her. Farmiga makes Laura's failures to see what's coming credible, maintaining a baseline of annoyed distraction that might believably prevent her from stopping to ask herself, "Wait — is it really a good idea to share a bottle of whiskey alone with my hunky ex-husband?"

It's not as if those around Laura are seducing her into doing the things that cause her trouble, and it certainly isn't as if (with the exception of that night with Leonard) she enjoys them. Plummer exudes charisma as always, but Jack is not a charmer: He merely tells Laura what to do, and dismisses her objections as neurosis. "You can't live without being a victim, can you?," he asks at one point. But the accuracy of his diagnosis does little to resolve our own dissatisfaction with a character we want to root for but shouldn't. Laura may keep expecting change from an 85-year-old who has never acted with her interests in mind, and Feste may go along with the willful blindness. That doesn't mean we have to buy it.

Production companies: Automatik, Oddfellows Entertainment, Stage 6 Films
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, Lewis MacDougall, Bobby Cannavale, Kristen Schaal, Dolly Wells, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Fonda
Director-screenwriter: Shana Feste
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Chris Ferguson
Executive producers: Bailey Conway Anglewicz, Jennifer Besser
Director of photography: Sara Mishara
Production designer: Page Buckner
Costume designer: Ariana Preece
Editors: Marie-Hélène Dozo, Dorian Harris
Composer: Michael Penn
Casting directors: Justine Arteta, Kim Davis-Wagner, Kara Eide, Kris Woz
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

Rated R, 104 minutes