There’s nothing so fun in theory yet so miserable in practice as a cross country road trip. Dreams of amazing sights and meaningful bonding quickly give way to the odor of stale fast food, the stress of keeping an itinerary, and a cooped-up breed of tension that transforms the vehicle into a mental sauna. Add a “family” qualifier and the recipe for disaster quadruples. This is the setting of Olivia Silver’s film Arcadia, used here in no small way as a representation of the equally torturous journey from ones childhood into their teenage years.
The plot begins, half awake, as protagonist Greta (Ryan Simpkins), a quiet, sensitive, twelve-year-old girl is groggily whisked away from her New England home by father Tom (John Hawkes) to embark upon a family move to Arcadia, California. More emotionally advanced than younger brother Nat (played by real-life sibling Ty Simpkins) yet without the semi-jaded control of older sister Caroline (Kendall Toole), Greta’s expedition, on a personal level, is rife with questions, many related to “Why is this happening?” Though it isn’t spelled out until later, the viewer can deduce early on that the family is in some state of disintegration, with promises that “Your mother is meeting us there” sitting about as well as a truck-stop glass of wine.
Hawkes’s performance as the unhinged patriarch is phenomenal. We see every empty promise eat away at his stability, and every minor crisis push him further towards the brink, and yet we still get those goofy-dad routines, believably well-worn and not quite embarrassing enough for his offspring to stifle their smiles. These seamless transitions from fun-loving cruise director to hot-headed, belligerent mess imbue Arcadia with tragic humanity, and as his sinusoidal sanity develops break-neck frequency, the anticipation of his inevitable snap serves as the movie’s Hitchcockian bomb-under-the-table. One almost wants to look away as Greta continually pushes sensitive issues with situational audacity that only a preteen could muster, but there’s no escape from familial turmoil when you’re trapped in a car hurtling down the interstate, and satisfyingly, the film does not avoid or diminish the climactic explosion, presenting it in all its psychologically gory detail.
Other sections of Arcadia, however, do not entirely live up to the compelling drama that follows Hawkes’s character. Scenes between the two sisters carry little weight, and occasionally shift the relationship dynamic without warning or explanation. The physical changes associated with Greta’s age exist as half-realized nodes, often becoming absorbed by the violent immediacy of whatever father-daughter argument occurs next. Additionally, a few character-detail subplots evaporate after brief glimpses (Greta/dogs, Greta/music), and ultimately aren’t as effective as the muted desert colored palette and the ultra-restrained score in conveying the disquieting alienation the movie effortlessly oozes.
The use of metaphor in creative work has become somewhat muddied by parody, self-parody, and laziness (Avatar might even have all three), so it’s appealing to see a director throw herself into the territory at full gale. Beyond the simple and impressively organic role of the station wagon as a symbol of puberty’s repulsive and inescapable sense of confinement and simultaneous feeling of hurtling uncontrollably towards strange new territory, we see conflict in two of Greta’s possessions: a beloved toy rabbit and a scratch-off lottery ticket. One is indicative of adolescent comfort, and one is a more “adult” solace. Just as her father must confront an apparent faith placed in a both literal and figurative Arcadia, Greta must deal with her own vessels of escape, weighing them against the brutal chaos of adulthood. Thankfully, Silver doesn’t mine for an elegant conclusion, instead letting her subjects hit a few potentially rough endnotes, and leaving their arrival at a rich and universal truth to go the way of a tourist attraction crossed off the agenda.