In a summer of ginormous tentpoles and multiple franchise entries, it’s nice to see a modestly budgeted, original film like BOUNDARIES appear in Cineplexes. More and more, this kind of film is vanishing from the landscape, but if they’re done as well as this one, hopefully, it will encourage more such productions. Say what you want about films where heroes don super suits and save the world, more often the best special effect onscreen is the chemistry between two actors. And in Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer, BOUNDARIES has special to spare.
Road pictures are always, yes, a vehicle for two disparate characters to get to know each other. There’s something about being stuck in a car together that feeds the tension and encourages truth and humanity to come out. Be it IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT or RAIN MAN, the road changes people and closes the gap between them. In BOUNDARIES, written and directed by the exceedingly clever Shana Feste, the gap between father Jack (Plummer) and his daughter (Farmiga) is a mile wide. Yet, days together in a contained car will force this odd couple to get to truly know each other and come to appreciate each other as they haven’t ever before.
Farmiga’s character of Laura Jaconi is a single mom, with a quirky teenage son Henry (the marvelously droll Lewis MacDougall), and she’s got more baggage than a Samsonite showroom. Laura fancies herself an independent spirit, guileless and spontaneous, but such characteristics are not the best for the responsibilities of motherhood. She’s terrible at managing money, lackadaisical when it comes to parental discipline, and there isn’t a stray cat or dog that crosses her path that she can say no to. Laura fools herself into thinking she’s in control, but she even lies to her therapist.
Her lack of discipline is starting to create problems for Henry too. Not only is rent and food a question every week for them, but with no true guard rails, the teen boy is quickly following in his mother’s peculiar footsteps. Henry has few friends, draws graphic nude photos of everyone he encounters, and gets tossed out of his school due to his overt lack of propriety. This movie earns its R-rating in the first 10 minutes when Henry’s graphic, nude sketch of his school principal is shown and the visual earns one of this comedy-drama’s largest laughs.
Laura’s got her hands full with her difficult son, his sketchpad, and all those fur babies living with them, but then her estranged father Jack (Christopher Plummer) needs to enter her fold. He gets tossed out of his senior living home for selling pot. Jack is also a tart-tongued scoundrel, randy and slovenly. The old man has even been growing the marijuana he sells on the retirement home’s premises. Now, he is homeless and has product to unload.
Thus, he calls Laura, and immediately they bicker with each other like in the past. The banter between Farmiga and Plummer is acerbic and full of anger, yet each performer knows how to find the gooey center underneath all that acrimony. Laura gets talked into driving her dad to LA to live with daughter JoJo (Kristen Schaal) and soon, she loads up the car with Henry, a couple of dogs and a cat, and off they go.
As the road picture kicks into high gear, Jack needles her from the get-go, enjoying pushing her buttons, but he always stops just short of being a jerk. It’s a credit to Feste for casting Plummer in the role because even when he’s at his worst, he’s still oh-so likable. (Plummer’s so good, he almost made you feel sorry for his J. P. Getty in last year’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. Almost.) The veteran star plays against type here – he’s rough, unshaven, and profane – but we love him every step of the way. And slowly but surely, Jack wins over his daughter and grandson too. He helps Laura face her shortcomings, plays father to Henry, and even punches his daughter’s ex-husband in the face when she should have been the one to wallop him.
As road shows go, meeting up with an ex is just one of the typical tropes that Feste visits. Of course, the Jaconi clan also experiences a dangerous run-in with a cop, and it’s not surprising that they stop over at crappy motels and greasy spoons to engage in revelatory conversations as well. Naturally, the visit to Laura’s former husband Leonard goes badly, and we knew it wouldn’t the moment we saw Bobby Canavale in the part. Still, in even such expected set-pieces, Feste finds fresh ways to serve them up. Through clever snatches of off-beat dialogue, reaction shots that linger longer than they have to, or slightly askew physicality between the character, Feste continually breathes new life in every scene.
Still, it’s the most unexpected turns that give BOUNDARIES its best moments. A stop to drop off some weed with Jack’s old friend Stanley (Christopher Lloyd) turns into a comic highlight as the old coot is not only a hugger but a nudist. Jack’s affectionate relationship with Stanley’s handicapped adult son is given time onscreen to stick too. There’s also an inspired visit to a weed customer played by a coolly affable Peter Fonda. Best of all, the film spends time in L.A. once the Jaconi’s arrive, and we get to know JoJo too. Schaal is delightful here, as her JoJo is as lovable and eccentric as the rest of the oddball family.
Feste keeps her story bubbling along, breezy and smart, heavy at times, but never morose. Farmiga keeps the frazzled Laura recognizable and relatable throughout, but then again, the accomplished actress can make any crazy mom understandable. If you have any doubts, just look at her award-winning work for five years as Mrs. Bates on A & E’s hit thriller BATES MOTEL. Farmiga’s one of the best actresses working today and it’s great to see her landing film leads outside of the horror genre like THE CONJURING franchise.
At times the film is almost eccentric to a fault, but it’s all so engaging and charming, what’s to complain about? Feste is arguing that such craziness lies in every family, and truly, what exactly is normal? The filmmaker knows that no family is perfect and that each soul is lost in their own way. Who among us couldn’t afford a few more understanding, more hugs, or a few four-legged companions to remind us to live more vividly? We all need more delightful films like this at the box office too.