Road trip movies are among the oldest indie film clichés in the book, and often one of the lamest, especially when they involve estranged relatives healing their differences. To the credit of “Boundaries,” Shana Feste’s comedy about single mom Laura (Vera Farming) hauling her pot-dealing dad Jack (Christopher Plummer) across California, these familiar beats have a ring of maturity that enhances the stale material. While it never quite shakes the deja vu, a set of sharp performances and insightful character details elevate the material above low expectations.
As “Boundaries” begin, Laura’s problems have nothing to do with her deadbeat dad. Her cramped Seattle home is overrun with abandoned animals she can’t stop taking in, nabbing every stray that falls into her sight (in the first scene, she sneaks a kitten into her bag before visiting her therapist). Her teen son Henry (Lewis MacDougall, in a smarmy shift from his “A Monster Calls” performance) struggles from bullying at a local high school, and while her mom wants to send him to a private art school instead, she lacks the funds.
Enter Jack, who has been kicked out of his nursing home across the state for his drug-dealing antics and begs Laura to get him out of there. It’s instantly clear that Plummer’s foul-mouthed troublemaker will provide the movie with its key to elevating the basic formula. “You geriatric sons of bitches,” he growls at the nursing home’s board with a half-smirk, and he’s just getting started.
Jack makes a deal: Help him leave the nursing home and he’ll give her the money to pay for Henry’s education. Once they arrive, however, the situation grows more complicated. He wants to drive, he says, because he’s dying; privately to Henry, however, he says it’s because he needs to transport loads of marijuana in the trunk. So begins the trio’s journey, which finds them dropping in on Laura’s crude ex-husband (a slimy Bobby Canavale), one of Jack’s aging hippie friends (Christopher Lloyd, eyes-bulging alongside a maniacal grin), and another more refined pal who’s basically just an excuse to give Peter Fonda a fun cameo.
As the family careens through California to drop Jack with Laura’s sister (Kristen Schaal, goofy and hilarious as usual), Jack veers from self-serving jerk who could care less about his family to show some modicum of empathy, but only once the situation veers out of control.
There are no big twists in “Boundaries,” and the small ones that do arrive late in the game could have been predicted by most savvy viewers from the first act. But the “Little Miss Sunshine” clichés have been supplanted by a welcome dose of snark thanks to Plummer, who couldn’t be in more different territory from his “All the Money in the World” turn, and Feste’s screenplay. While J. Paul Getty rejected his family for selfish reasons and preferred to brood on his own, Jack thrives on making them uncomfortable. To Henry, he asserts, “Even pedophiles steer clear of your bad vibes.”
Henry himself is an innocent observer in the uneasy dynamic between Jack and his daughter, played by Farmiga with a jittery angst that provides a great reminder that she’s one of the most engaging American actresses working today. Laura’s frantic expression of frustrations become the movie’s core engine, and as she grows increasingly exasperated, her animal fixation goes from neurotic impulse to logical coping mechanism. Plus, all the dogs are adorable.
Needless to say, “Boundaries” breaks no fresh ground and sags into conventional story beats on autopilot, but it’s rewarding enough to hang with these characters and roll with their mudslinging. Eventually, the trip grows tiresome, its message of learning to love your relatives in spite of their flaws registering on a far simpler scale than the undercurrent of multi-generational resentment percolating throughout the story. Feste can’t help but give up and resort to a basic happy ending, and while it works well enough on its own terms, it’s also the sort of thing that Jack would probably turn off after five minutes.
“Boundaries” premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.