Debutante writer-helmer Olivia Silver’s “Arcadia” features a dysfunctional family taking a road trip and stars John Hawkes: In every respect, it feels like a typical Sundance film, except that it wasn’t actually there this year (although the short it’s based on, “Little Canyon,” played Park City in 2009). By the same token, this amiable-enough indie entertainment would be right at home on an upscale movie channel, but the script is soporifically predictable, and perfs and direction are all adequate but no more. Pic is likely to drive around the fest circuit and possibly park in niche distribution before reaching the ancillary junkyard.
Story unfolds mostly through the eyes of 12-year-old Greta, aka “Griz” (Ryan Simpkins, “A Single Man” and “Revolutionary Road”), who, along with her older sister, Caroline (Kendall Toole), and 9-year-old brother, Nat (Ryan’s real-life sibling Ty Simpkins), is being forced by her dad, Tom (Hawkes), to move cross-country from New England to Arcadia, Calif. Tom hustles them all into the family station wagon one morning and hits the road, promising that their absent mother, who’s supposedly visiting her sister, will join them out on the West Coast later.
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The kids know Mom doesn’t want to go any more than they do, but the long-unemployed Tom has been offered a fuzzily defined job he can’t turn down. Overhearing snatches of angry conversation between Tom and others on the phone, Griz senses there’s more going on than her father or big sister are telling her. Even though she’s just starting puberty, Griz still clings to her favorite stuffed toy, a rabbit called Harrison, a symbol of innocence clearly destined to be sacrificed at some point to mark the end of childhood.
Most of the action takes place in the car, where Tom tries to keep the kids’ spirits up with jokes and stories when he’s not snapping at them in annoyance. Pugnacious and argumentative, he gets into road-rage arguments with other drivers and at one point refuses to pay the fees to visit the Grand Canyon, dashing little Nat’s dreams. Clearly, he’s not father-of-the-year material, but of course, Griz will learn that not everything is as it seems, especially where her mother is concerned.
The ever-reliable Hawkes does what he can with the material, but his part is too thinly written to convince, although he’s a charismatic presence as ever with his wiry frame and large, lively eyes. The kid characters have more meat on their bones, and Silver is especially good at capturing the mercurial chemistry between teenage sisters, snarling at each other one minute and giving each other leg-shaving lessons the next. That said, there’s something a bit too polished and precociously pert about the younger thesps’ line deliveries that irritates throughout. A more relaxed approach to the script might have been in order, giving them more latitude to improvise.
Even the lensing, a bit overexposed and chockfull of grain, feels rote as it regurgitates the obligatory seedy highway vistas and hotels-at-dusk nocturnes. Twangy score by the Low Anthem is agreeable but likewise standard-issue.