Tyro helmer-scribe Justin Schwarz’s “The Discoverers” belongs to that spate of recent movies (“The Descendants,” “We Bought a Zoo”) that effect familial reconciliation under Daddy through death and tribulation. Making its protagonist (Griffin Dunne) a man whose future apparently passed him by, Schwarz’s script plunges him back into his annual childhood trauma, a period re-enactment of the Lewis & Clark expedition, so that he may emerge reborn. Schwarz lacks the writing chops to adequately embed the character’s predictable learning curve into a richer narrative fabric, but Dunne’s perf is pitch-perfect. This competent seriocomic item could see limited theatrical play.
A history professor whose great but thoroughly unrealized potential has landed him a teaching gig at an unaccredited college, Lewis Birch (Dunne) sets off for a conference to present a paper on his soon-to-be-published, 6,000-page tome on Merriweather Clark’s slave, York. He must first detour to Chicago to pick up his precocious 15-year-old vegan daughter, Zoe (Madeleine Martin), and monosyllabic older son, Jack (Devon Graye), for a custodial weekend. His jaunt is further derailed by news of his own mother’s illness; when he arrives at his parents’ Idaho home, he discovers his mother dead and his father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), virtually catatonic.
Still, the unstable Stanley revives and disappears to join the yearly historical reconstruction; a doctor strongly advises Lewis to accompany his father on the trek. Soon Lewis and his two kids — an unhappy trio garbed in appropriate homespun attire, with their cell phones and other post-19th-century accoutrements confiscated — are hot on Stanley’s trail. Crazy Grandpa has become completely absorbed in his role as a particularly fanatical, bloodthirsty Capt. Clark.
As Stanley grows increasingly delusional and tyrannical, the natural surroundings (convincing but narrowly hemmed-in by d.p. Christopher Blauvelt’s framing) encourage opposite feelings in the rest of the family. Teenage Jack falls for shapely blonde Abigail (Dreama Walker). Lewis’ romantic impulses, meanwhile, are aroused by the attentions of sweet, lovely Nell (Cara Buono), pioneer dispenser of hot food and comfort.
But the film reserves its deepest bonding for Lewis and Zoe. Dad discovers a kindred soul, his daughter’s witty cynicism mirroring his own, while her quiet understanding saves him from a complete meltdown.
Schwarz’s script hints at potentially intriguing parallels between Lewis Birch’s magnum opus, about a slave forced to join the grueling historical expedition, and the situation in which he now finds himself. It also links Merriweather Lewis’ suicide with the protag’s possible reaction to his dead-end career. But family reconciliation trumps all discomfiting ambiguities as it turns out that Father, in his infinite confusion, still knows best.