An estranged father and son are forced to interact at a Burning Man-like counterculture festival in music-video director Raf Reyntjens’ astute feature debut, “Paradise Trips.” Initially hobbled from full engagement by two leading characters who are all too convincingly unpleasant to be around, the pic earns their (and the viewers’) rapprochement by burying its fundamental generation-gapped, dysfunctional-family formulaics in low-key observation, plus a welcome late dose of druggy absurdism. Already released in home territories, it could pick up modest offshore sales in various formats while marking Reyntjens as a talent to watch.
Dutch tour-bus company owner/driver Mario (Gene Bervoets) is miserable in retirement, cranky and uncommunicative with wife Linda (Tania Van der Sanden) despite her valiant attempts to engage him. Rather than accept her proposal that they take a vacation together, he leaps at his former business partner’s emergency request that he take over a group rental trip to Croatia.
It’s an assignment, however, to which he could hardly be more ill-suited, personality-wise: He’s a culturally conservative control freak now stuck driving a busload of unkempt, disrespectful twentysomething ravers to a week-long electronica festival. The journey is bad enough; upon arriving, he’s even more disgusted by so much latter-day “dirty hippie”-dom, despite the efforts of Esmeralda (Marie Louise Steihns), an Earth Mother-ly woman his own age, to chill his hot-tempered vibes. A small bright spot is his sympathetic encounter with Sunny (Cedric Van Den Abbeele), the inaptly named young son of easygoing rental-group leader Miranda (Noortje Herlaar). Sunny is equally unhappy to be here, pronouncing Mario “the first normal person I’ve seen.”
As a result of this tentative paternal bond, Mario is even more horrified when he realizes Sunny’s father is in fact his own long-estranged son, Jim (Jeroen Perceval). (At this point the film rewinds for a few minutes to show how this unwelcome reunion accidentally came about, and how Jim had already been actively hiding from his father since the journey’s start.) There are years of bad blood between the two men, who, despite wildly different surfaces, are all too similarly angry, sulky and self-righteous, as well as bad parents. (The mutually goading dynamic between Sunny and Jim could hardly be worse.) After an ugly initial confrontation, Mario storms off, taking his bus with him. But he only gets so far before concern over the grandson he didn’t know he had draws him back.
“Paradise Trips” resists the sentimentality inherent in this kind of family-wound-healing exercise, almost going too far in making Jim and Mario such exasperating man-brats. But the refusal to hit easy emotional marks pays off in an eventual, fragile father-son reconciliation that is touching precisely for being so hard-won. The caustic humor and casual narrative feel also heighten the impact of an inventive, delightful late passage when Mario’s emotional constipation is loosened by an unwitting dose of recreational drugs — perhaps the best, most knowingly handled such sequence of hallucinogenic surrealism since Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock.”
Lacking funds to stage its own music festival, the pic was largely, stealthily shot amid actual attendees at the 2014 Lost Theory Festival in rural Gracac, Croatia. (The 2016 edition is moving to northern Spain, however.) The logistical challenges must have been considerable, but the results possess a shaggy authenticity that only enhances the fish-out-of-water concept. Natch, the fest’s sights and techno sounds add a great deal of color. But they’re always kept in service to the story, never used as a flashy foreground.
Making his feature debut after several shorts, as well as numerous commercials and some high-profile music videos, Reyntjens handles a very good cast and sometimes tricky tonal balance with impressive assurance. Tech and design elements are all first-rate, the most conspicuous (but still modestly scaled) being the digital f/x for Mario’s presumably lysergic “trip.”