There is no family rift so great that it can’t be bridged with a road trip. So the movies tell us, over and over again, and if it’s not necessarily true, the best examples of this subgenre — call it the road-to-reconciliation movie — take enough of a scenic route that we come to believe it. A deliberate, gentle, genuinely caring debut feature from Icelandic director Elfar Adalsteins, “End of Sentence” is built on a premise of sweet, creamed corn: a wayward youth and his estranged, retiring father rebuild their bond as they journey to Ireland to scatter the ashes of their mother and wife. Yet if the vehicle feels familiar, the passengers make it credible: John Hawkes and Logan Lerman, both on very fine form, work enough worn human damage into proceedings that we invest in their joint healing.
Recently premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, this Irish-Icelandic-American co-production is an unabashedly small picture of the kind likeliest, in the present-day market, to find its audience on streaming outlets. Yet Adalsteins — delivering a first feature eight years after his John Hurt-starring short, “Sailcloth,” picked up some gongs on the festival circuit — has a patient, inquisitive eye for faces, both at rest and in emotional process, that keeps proceedings away from the flatly televisual. (The rolling, tousled Emerald Isle scenery flashing by the car window, shot lucidly but not over-prettily by Karl Oskarsson, doesn’t hurt either.) Charged with the heavy lifting, Hawkes and Lerman never make it look strenuous: Their tense, tetchy conflict plays out as a quiet war of frayed nerves and pent-up irritations, gradually revealed to have a shared, more tortured root.
In an Alabama prison, twentysomething car thief Sean Fogle (Lerman) receives what he’s told will be his final visit from his cancer-stricken mother Anna (Andrea Irvine) — an Irish immigrant long settled in the U.S. — while his disconnected father Frank (Hawkes) hovers anxiously in the hostile, airless room. By the time Sean is released shortly afterwards, Anna is dead, while Frank’s offer to take him home is brusquely rebuffed: Sean has plans for a new life in California, and no time for his widowed, hollowed father’s timid attempts to make amends. Eventually, however, a grudging sense of maternal obligation commits him to Anna’s dying wish: that Frank and Sean travel to Ireland together to cast her remains over an remote, idyllic rural lake some way north of Dublin.
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No prizes for guessing that the task, initially given a two-day timeline, is not so simply accomplished. Michael Armbruster’s agreeably rambling screenplay throws speed bumps of varying plausibility along the winding country road — beginning with an impromptu, Guinness-soaked reunion with Anna’s Dublin relatives, where Frank is disconcerted by revelations of his staid wife’s wilder past, while Sean hooks up Jewel (the ever-welcome Sarah Bolger), a beguiling barfly with a seemingly dark past and, as it turns out, a pretty shady present.
The madcap detour that ensues when Jewel hitches a ride with the scarcely-speaking Americans may be the film’s broadest contrivance, yet just as the film seems headed for morose cruise control, Bolger’s performance — wily and loose-limbed, yet clear of manic pixie affectations — juices up proceedings. One sublime musical interlude that sees her captivate the clientele of a roadside boozer with a bell-clear rendition of the Irish folk standard “Dirty Old Town”; “End of Sentence” benefits from such lyrical diversions.
Still, she’s an engaging sideshow to the developing father-son dynamic at the film’s stout but sentimental heart. Frank and Sean may inevitably thaw to each other as they clock up the miles, but their relationship deepens and darkens in ways less easily seen coming. A more complex, trauma-laced backstory of layered, inherited daddy issues is revealed with restraint and grace — both by Armbruster’s measured writing and Hawkes and Lerman’s mutually scarred, increasingly simpatico performances — while the mellow good humor of proceedings is starkly disrupted by well-observed flashes of intimate violence. As is par for the course, by the time “End of Sentence” parks at its planned destination, we come to see that father and son are more like each other than they care to admit; more interestingly and importantly, we come to understand why they’ve scurried from those similarities.