After 19 long years, Joy Nicholson’s ocean-spray coming-of-age tale “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” has finally found its way to the screen, and though there’s virtually zero sense of anticipation surrounding the arrival of this once-hot property, directors Emmett and Brendan Malloy have done right by the source material — a West Coast answer to Ang Lee’s Connecticut-set “The Ice Storm,” which came hit theaters a year before her novel was published. Like one of those surfers who blithely changes out of his wetsuit between parked cars along the Pacific Coast Highway, “Tribes” skins back the veneer of upper-middle-class suburbia, only to reveal heartbreak and dysfunction underneath.
Maybe it was the Malloys’ surf-culture background that ultimately landed the siblings the gig that had eluded multiple directors before them. Hard to say, though the duo brings a unique touch to a film that otherwise evokes the kind of broken-family ennui so much in vogue when the book was published. And yet, despite a familiar white-picket-fence ennui shared with films such as “American Beauty” and “Donnie Darko,” “Tribes” boasts a unique texture of its own — a hazy, sun-kissed kind of soft focus that suggests faded Polaroid photographs and formative moments half-remembered.
It’s the story of growing up amidst privilege, overshadowed by tragedy, in an expensive house perched on cliffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean — a nice visual metaphor for how precarious it all seems, once the family dynamics underlying such an enviable lifestyle start to erode. DP Giles Dunning’s loose, magic-hour cinematography aptly conveys the sense of nostalgia Medina Mason feels for those days, before her parents’ marriage dissolved, and the rest of the family along with it — and it might all of felt quite fresh, if HBO’s “Big Little Lies” hadn’t beaten them to it with a more wicked takedown of the same sort of exclusive enclave.
Medina is played by Maika Monroe (of “It Follows”), an experienced kiteboarder who seems plenty comfortable shooting her own surf scenes, but also proves quite good at delivering what amounts to an unusually heavy dose of narration. So often frowned upon by critics, voiceover isn’t such a bad thing in this case, coupling with Gustavo Santaolalla’s score (alternately agitated and rhythmic, lapping like waves at low tide) to give the film its own feel — a kind of yearning for that last moment they were together, for the days when she and twin brother Jim (Cody Fern) could rely on one another to escape life’s outside pressures.
No sooner have the Masons arrived in Palos Verdes than a kind of virtual earthquake seems to be working against them. At school, shining-star Jim starts to run with the cool kids, while Medina sticks to herself. Their mother Sandy (Jennifer Garner, arguably too beautiful for the fading-beauty housewife she depicts) starts acting erratically. It’s not entirely clear whether she anticipates her husband’s imminent infidelity, or drives him to it, but in any case, it comes as no big surprise when Phil (Justin Kirk) confesses an affair with the Realtor who sold them the home (like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” one of those unexpected yet welcome cases where a brief appearance by a typecast Alicia Silverstone bolsters the overall ensemble).
Divorce affects every family differently, but in this case, it forces the twins to seek outlet elsewhere. At first, they are drawn to the waves, but a gang of local surfers (resembling the territorial Lunada Bay Boys) try to intimidate them. Medina doesn’t back down, taking comfort in the sport, tangling with one of the older guys, who very nearly takes her virginity, while Jim turns to drugs and other distractions.
Having moved cross-country only to be cast away by her husband, Sandy finds herself adrift in what she no longer recognizes as her own life, and Garner imbues this performance with a kind of desperate ferocity. She shows up at the country club where the housewives gossip and makes a scene on the tennis court, and enlists Jim in forging his father’s signature when the alimony isn’t enough. Teasing the fact that something terrible awaits the family, the Malloys shape her arc in such a way that audiences probably think they know what’s coming, while still managing to surprise. (Although, after “Ordinary People,” it’s hard for any such portrait to devastate to the same degree.)
There’s so much that is familiar about “Tribes,” it’s no wonder the film has gotten somewhat lost in the sea of independent festival releases — a perfect double-bill with 2017’s other overlooked Jennifer Garner movie, “Wakefield.” And yet it demonstrates a remarkable sense of atmosphere and place. Palos Verdes has a code all its own, poignantly captured in the passages that bookend the film. Though the story was written almost two decades ago, it’s a microcosm for the kind of wall-building mentality that has taken hold of the mainstream today, and the Malloy brothers achieve a kind of tragic poetry that sticks with those who make it a point to seek this one out.