The first thing you ight notice about Elfar Adalsteins’ “End of Sentence,” a tender, unfussy, and rewarding father-son drama that trusts in the purity of its premise, is that it seems to have everything backwards. John Hawkes should be playing the bitter jailbird, and Logan Lerman — who’s almost single-handedly kept the “nice Jewish boy” archetype relevant and appealing thanks to his work in the likes of “Indignation” and Amazon’s “Hunters” — should be the nervous wreck who lets people walk all over him. In a story about the intergenerational echoes of bad parenting, we expect the dad to be the one who’s hardened by inherited abuse, and his kid to be the one who cowers from it. But that’s how trauma gets handed down like some kind of blood-stained family heirloom: If you try to be the antithesis of the man who raised you, it’s only a matter of time before you start to resemble the man who raised him.
Lighter than it sounds — and sharp enough to get away with its schematic plotting — “End of Sentence” doesn’t reverse the usual roles so much as it catches them a bit further along the cycle than we’re used to finding them, after they’ve had time to fold over each other. When the movie begins, things with the Fogles have already gotten so bad that Frank (Hawkes) doesn’t even bother to go inside when he and his cancer-stricken wife (Andrea Irvine) visit their son at the Alabama prison where Sean (Lerman) has been locked up for the last few years.
Frank is meek and hides behind small talk whenever anyone spots him, while Sean can’t even give his dying mother a hug goodbye without tensing the rest of his body for a fight (Lerman’s stiff and vehemently masculine posture is almost unrecognizable from the snakiness he exudes in the upcoming “Shirley,” as the actor’s dark side is becoming as well-shaded as his light). Sean’s mom begs him not to “let the past control you,” but she’s well aware that her plea will probably fall on deaf ears. So she hatches a contingency plan to piece her family back together: Her dying wish is for Sean and Frank to fly to Ireland and scatter her remains across the lake where she grew up. And when Sean is released on probation some time later, that’s exactly what Frank makes him do.
…Under extreme duress. Sean, who’s got a job waiting for him in California if he can get there in time to claim it, isn’t on board with the plan until Frank promises him that they’ll never have to see each other again once the trip is over. Adalsteins’ debut feature doesn’t take long to articulate why the Fogle men have failed to communicate: Both of them got their cigarette burns from the same man, but Sean has always resented his dad for not fighting back.
A lesser film might have forced that resentment out into the open through a series of histrionic screaming matches, but “End of Sentence” doesn’t pretend that it can fix 30 years of pain in the span of three acts and 90 minutes. While things get plotty down the home stretch as this sober two-hander threatens to veer into “Little Miss Sunshine” territory, Michael Armbruster’s soft-footed script mines the brunt of its truth from quieter moments that Lerman and Hawkes are given space to inhabit. There’s Sean’s disgust when Frank doesn’t complain about someone getting his order wrong at an airport cafeteria. There’s the way Frank walks through his own wife’s funeral like a ghost, and is steamrolled flat by the revelation that she may never have gotten over her first love. Maybe he always secretly assumed that she had settled for him, the sane way that he had settled for his own lot in life.
Sean meets a girl at a pub (Sarah Bolger as the radiant and troubled Jewel) and convinces Frank to let her join in their road trip across Ireland. At first she seems like an excuse for the two men not to talk to each other, but she ends up being the engine that drives them closer together. If the character is too broadly functional to feel as real as the story around her, Bolger’s performance helps smooth things out; her turn embodies the film’s breezy tone, its low-key sense of adventure, and its sense that things can be forced and natural at the same time (a paradox that can only be resolved in stories about family).
And if Sean and Frank’s journey towards common ground is too short and easy to close the vast gap that’s opened between them, “End of Sentence” isn’t punctuated with the kind of finality that its title implies. Casually cathartic at times, cathartically casual at others, this affecting little film about fathers and sons knows that some wounds never heal, but it’s never too late to stop the bleeding.
Gravitas Ventures will release “End of Sentence” on VOD on Friday, May 29.