Film Review: The Tribes of Palos Verdes

A competent coming-of-ager.
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Jennifer Garner must have had a lot of fun on the set of The Tribes of Palos Verdes. She plays a manic-depressive, narcissistic loon of a mother whose unraveling state of mind, in toxic combination with the selfishness of her husband, has devastating consequences for her children. She gets to rant and rave and play against type with a fearsomeness that does indeed enliven this otherwise atmospheric film whenever she appears onscreen. There is some chewing of the scenery, although not enough of it to call her performance campy. It isn’t a bad performance, just as this debut feature from the brothers Emmett and Brendan Malloy (who won the “Directors to Watch” award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this year) isn’t a bad movie. Only, it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It is an unremarkably solid contribution to the genre and, as such, is done well for what it is.

Our protagonist is teenage Medina (Maika Monroe), who has just moved with her twin brother Jim (Cody Fern), her mom Sandy (Garner) and her heart-surgeon father Phil (Justin Kirk) to dystopian Palos Verdes, CA. This is the sort of place where the more immaculately kept the houses are, the more unhinged are the realities within. Though the family is hoping to start anew, its troubles have followed. Soon enough, Mom is succumbing to black moods and making socially inappropriate complaints to the tennis wives, while Dad is once again fooling around. When he finally ups and leaves his tribe for a svelte California blonde (Alicia Silverstone), Mom really loses it and begins to rely over-heavily on Jim, the newly lone “man of the house.” Medina, for her part, when she isn’t being manipulated by one or the other of her parents, finds solace in surfing, and then in the affections of an unlikely source. The crisis to which these elements build is a tragedy that duly elicits tears.

The Tribes of Palos Verdes opens with a long single take that follows Medina as she moves from the pool of her backyard to her new front yard overlooking the ocean, coming into contact with and introducing us to each member of her family along the way. This shot is so masterfully handled it’s disappointing that the film never quite lives up to the dynamic promise of its opener. Instead, the movie utilizes a lot of slo-mo cinematography (which seems to be de rigueur for creating an aestheticized sense of atmospherics these days) that contributes to an air of moodiness, which, while certainly in keeping with a teenager’s point of view, makes for some unwontedly slow sequences. It is these many “ruminative” shots of Medina surfing and gazing unhappily at the craziness around her that make the active kookiness of Garner’s character so welcome when it appears.

The film also includes a bit of voiceover that sounds as if it were taken straight from the Joy Nicholson novel on which it’s based. Dee Rees’ recent adaptation Mudbound proved to what great use literary voiceover can be put, but in this instance Medina’s voice is neither lyrical enough nor insightful/informative enough to enrich the present action. We have already a firm sense of her character and of her surroundings simply by watching the one interact amid the other. In voiceover, Monroe sounds as if she is reading directly from a book, and in more of a recitative than performative sense.

The heart of the film and its most compelling aspect is the relationship between Medina and her twin brother. The movie stays close enough to this core that when the climax occurs, it has an impact. Much of its effectiveness is thanks to the performance of Australian actor Fern, who in 2014 won the Heath Ledger Scholarship. Some of us might have wished something more or different had been added or pushed in this competent story, but at least The Tribes of Palos Verdes delivers on expectations.

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