Kim Voynar reviews “The Savages” at Sundance 07

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“You’d have to try pretty damn hard to mess up with actors of that caliber (Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bookending your film, and fortunately, with writer/director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, which I’ve always loved) at the helm, it’s smooth sailing,” writes Kim Voynar on Cinematical.com, reviewing of one of the films she was most looking forward to seeing at Sundance.

At almost every film festival, there are one or two films I go into really hoping I’ll like them, and on truly fortuitous occasions, my hope and the hype both live up to expectations. One of those films at this year’s Sundance was The Savages, starring Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. You’d have to try pretty damn hard to mess up with actors of that caliber bookending your film, and fortunately, with writer/director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, which I’ve always loved) at the helm, it’s smooth sailing. Wendy and Jon Savage (Linney and Hoffman, respectively) are siblings who together survived a tumultuous and abusive childhood. They’ve long been estranged from their mother, who abandoned the family, and their father, who, we gather, was not the warmest or most nurturing of paternal figures. Needless to say, neither sibling survived childhood emotionally intact.

Wendy, at age 39, has only a cat, a ficus, and an occasional romp in the sack with a married man to keep her company in her tiny New York City apartment. Jon, at 42, is in the midst of ending his long-term relationship with his Polish girlfriend because her visa has expired and he just can’t make that commitment to marriage. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, and Jon a professor of drama working on a book on Bertolt Becht. When dad Lenny’s girlfriend of 20 years dies suddenly, Jon and Wendy fly to Sun City to assess the situation; they quickly learn that their dad had the non-marital version of a pre-nup with Doris, his lady friend, and he is being unceremoniously booted out of his home by his Doris’ kids, who want to sell the house to the next soon-to-be-dying client. Thus, Jon and Wendy end up in the unenviable position of having to care for the father who never cared for them.

What I loved about this film was all the little things that ring true to anyone who has dealt with an aging parent or grandparent: the desperately guilty search for a “good” nursing home, the only semi-effective attempts at turning a sterile nursing home space into a cozy home, the awkward conversations with an aging parent about things like comas, life support and funeral plans. Jenkins steers well clear of melodrama here as well; rather than bombarding us with images of a horrific childhood, she only gives the tiniest of glances. She also avoids making Lenny into the bad guy. Regardless of the past, Wendy is determined to take care of her dying father, with or without her brother, and Jenkins humanizes Lenny enough to make that believable.

Hoffman and Linney are both outstanding in this film, as you might expect, and Hoffman has a particularly impassioned speech about nursing homes as places where people are waiting to die; it was impassioned and believable. Philip Bosco is also great as the Savage siblings’ father, Lenny. The script is taut and honest, the dialogue sharp and witty, and the performances spot-on. There are no easy answers in dealing with aging and dying parents, and Jenkins doesn’t try to give us one; she simply takes us into the story of her fascinating characters, and the integrity with which she handles it makes it ring true throughout. Originally posted at Cinematical.com

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Kim Voynar

Kim Voynar was an internationally recognized film critic for a decade, covering the film festival circuit and independent cinema for Movie City News, Cinematical, IndieWIRE and Variety, before transitioning into producing films in 2010. She has served on juries and expert panels for many prestigious film festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival, SXSW, Sarasota Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival, Miami International Film Festival, Oxford Film Festival, and deadCENTER Film Festival. After three years producing for a Seattle-based prodco, she's now producing and consulting independently under her boutique production shingle, Lateralus, and is working on some killer projects with avant-garde music group The Residents, Will Calhoun (Living Colour), and Ken Stringfellow (Posies, REM), and consulting on some projects in the VR space with Hollywood producing legend Scott Ross (Apollo 13, Benjamin Buttons, Titanic). Her hobbies include trendsetting Seattle street style, staying up late nights pondering post-apocalytpic survival techniques, and deep thinking on virtual reality and the mathematical perfection of logarithmic spirals and fractals.