Griffin Dunne’s “Fierce People,” a 1980-set coming-of-age tale, struggles with different types of symbolic representations in its depiction of a teen’s fateful summer at a palatial East Coast estate. Pic’s portrayal of the upper crust sometimes bogs down in anthropological metaphor but, happily, Diane Lane and Donald Sutherland, as the boy’s mother and mentor respectively, generate enough genuine mythic power between them to reduce even symbolic naked tribesmen to mere ancillary props. Lane’s and Sutherland’s bravura perfs should carry Lions Gate fall release onto solid box office ground.
Finn (Anton Yelchin), a responsible, curly-headed, 15-year-old New Yorker, is all set to travel to the Amazon jungle to meet his famous anthropologist dad for the first time and join him in observing the fierce Ishkanani people. But, Finn’s plans are altered dramatically when he’s nabbed by the police for scoring his mom’s morning cocaine.
His loving but feckless mother Liz (Diane Lane), living hand-to-mouth in the city, calls in her markers with reclusive white-haired billionaire Ogden Osborne (Donald Sutherland). Soon mother and son, all charges dropped, are on their way to Osborne’s estate in the country, chauffeured by Osborne’s personal NYPD cop (Blu Mankuma).
Once ensconced in an opulent guest house, Liz, employed as Osborne’s full-time masseuse, gets busy attending AA meetings, defusing the well-bred hostility of Osborne’s daughter (Elizabeth Perkins), and starting up a romance with a hunky but respectable doctor (Christopher Shyer).
Finn, freed from his usual co-dependent caretaker role, is gradually drawn into the Osborne fold; Osborne’s grandson Bryce (Chris Evans), then Osborne himself take the young man under their wings. Soon the teenager is ascending the mansion’s manicured lawns in a hot air balloon, RSVPing to black-tie dinners, and trysting in the gazebo with Osborne’s nubile young granddaughter Maya (Kristen Stewart). Until, one night, Finn is beaten and savaged by an unknown assailant and paradise is lost.
Helmer Dunne and Dirk Wittenborn, adapting his own novel, set up increasingly explicit parallels between the monied classes and the Ishkanani tribesmen. Reels of 16mm film shot by Finn’s father of Ishkanani rites and customs start unspooling with increasing regularity, while body paint and primitive accoutrements pop up all over the estate.
Whenever Sutherland comes on scene, any inadequacies in the film’s depiction of the well-to-do become irrelevant. Osborne, as strikingly incarnated by Sutherland, is the rich, the product of generations of power, intelligence and enlightened self-interest. Lane and Sutherland, at opposite ends of the social scale, balance the film, with Lane’s unaffected warmth and go-with-the-flow sensuality counterpointing Sutherland’s sardonic, forward-thinking brilliance.
Yelchin’s Finn, managing to convey both a true personality and malleability simultaneously, seems perfectly poised between the film’s two reigning deities.
Tech credits are excellent, disguising pic’s extremely modest budget. Mark Ricker’s production design and Monique Prudhomme’s costumes bespeak money without billboarding it, with enough unobtrusively lived-in details to avoid making the ambiance look reconstructed. Lensing by William Rexer favors deep rich colors and textures that enhance locale’s cultivated landscapes even in moonlight.