‘Youth in Oregon’: Film Review | Palm Springs 2017

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
As contrived as it is dour.

A retired doctor, played by Frank Langella, is determined to end his life through euthanasia in a drama that also stars Billy Crudup, Christina Applegate and Mary Kay Place.

The dysfunctional-family road trip plays out in a decidedly minor key in Youth in Oregon, a drama that struggles to breathe life into its death-themed narrative. As the ailing and deeply unhappy octogenarian who sets his sites on assisted suicide, Frank Langella finds nuance in material that ranges from on-the-nose to clumsy, and Christina Applegate’s performance as his daughter hits true notes beneath the cacophonous surface. But mainly the fractured clan at the center of the feature is not great cross-country company.

Langella plays Raymond Engersol, who announces to his family on his 80th birthday that he wants to die, and will soon be heading to Oregon, where the family once lived and where euthanasia is legal. What he doesn’t reveal to his tippling wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), frenzied daughter Kate and frustrated son-in-law Brian (Billy Crudup) is that he has refused the option of a second, risky surgery for a heart condition that is otherwise certain to kill him. They’re therefore convinced that he won’t meet the requirements for the procedure and that they’ll talk him out of his geriatric tantrum somewhere between Westchester and Portland.

Thus the central implausibility of a plot that’s filled with them: Ray’s kin grudgingly — and shoutingly — go along with his plan, with vague intentions of undermining it. Driving duties fall to Brian after Kate is sidelined by a dramatically pointless high school sexting scandal involving their teenage daughter, Annie (Nicola Peltz).

The trip west progresses in flatly paced fits and starts, all but bereft of emotional impact or revelation, despite the pain and longing that Langella and Applegate express with persuasive urgency. Director Joel David Moore, working from a screenplay by first-timer Andrew Eisen, draws a few potent moments from the muddled story, chiefly in an affecting sequence involving another family, one that provides illuminating contrast to the wearying bunch we’ve been subjected to for the preceding hour and a half.

When, early in the film, Ray’s face lights up at the sight of a songbird, it’s an especially welcome moment — not for what it reveals about the character, which is little other than his affinity for birdwatching, an obvious emblem of engagement with the world — but because it’s a break, however fleeting, from the character’s gruff ungraciousness and the clammering responses of his self-absorbed relatives.

A couple of stops along the way draw other family members into the testy-bordering-on-belligerent proceedings. In Salt Lake City, there’s Ray and Estelle’s estranged son, Danny (Josh Lucas), and in Boise their college-student grandson, Nick (Alex Shaffer). The grownups’ intrusion on a campus kegger, and into Nick’s secretive life, pulses with dramatic potential that’s quickly squandered. Instead of taking things in unpredictably messy, insightful directions, Eisen and Moore offer the tired trope of bitter sons denied their fathers’ approval.

Occasionally showy visual touches, such as distorted reflections in the shiny metal skin of a roadside diner, match the strained dramatic tone: They call attention to themselves without saying much. Elsewhere, though, DP Ross Riege, using vintage lenses on digital cameras, achieves a warm brightness that suggests a subtle sense of yearning and time passing, the kind of stirring mournfulness that’s mostly missing from this story of one family’s massive communication breakdown. 

For most of the film’s running time, the question of death with dignity is dealt with only superficially. That makes sense, to a point, given that Ray's family is so vociferously pushing the matter away. But it's also a cheat. Through it all, even when Ray's story is unconvincing, the dignity that Langella gives him burns true. The movie’s effective opening image of him, facing himself in a fogged mirror, promises more than the distractingly dour drama ultimately delivers. Though Moore, to his credit, wisely refrains from a neat wrap-up for the characters, by film’s end the narrative fog hasn’t quite lifted.

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Production companies: Sundial Pictures, Campfire Film & TV
Cast: Frank Langella, Billy Crudup, Christina Applegate, Mary Kay Place, Josh Lucas, Nicola Peltz, Alex Shaffer, Maryann Plunkett, Robert Hogan, James Murtaugh
Director: Joel David Moore
Screenwriter: Andrew Eisen
Producers: Stefan Nowicki, Joey Carey, Morgan White
Executive producers: Frank Langella, Ross Dinerstein
Director of photography: Ross Riege
Production designer: Tania Bijlani
Costume designer: Anney Perrine

Editor: Michael Taylor
Composer: Joel P. West
Casting: Barbara Fiorentino

Not rated, 99 minutes