Boxed in by Fate: 'The Tribes of Palos Verdes'
Rejecting regulations but immersed in movie metaphors, the central characters find their own forms of chaos, reframing it as a kind of freedom.
"When we were kids," narrates Medina (Maika Monroe), "Jim and I had a treehouse in our backyard. I liked it best when it was just the two of us." Now, the teenager adds, as you see her and her twin brother Jim (Cody Fern), surfing in the Pacific Ocean. "For the first time in a long time, it felt like we were in our treehouse again."
It's a lovely moment early in The Tribes of Palos Verdes: the water is blue, the sky is wide, and the siblings are lithe and smiling, at ease in the water and with one another. But Medina's voiceover has been signaling adversity since the film's start, and you've already met the twins' troubled parents, Sandy (Jennifer Garner) and Phil (Justin Kirk), so you're over-prepared, within minutes, for the inevitable Ordinary People-ish turn. But where Robert Redford's movie began with the crisis and then dug into its complicated emotional aftermaths, Emmett Malloy and Brendan Malloy's film, based on a novel by Joy Nicholson, keeps signaling. As you wait for what's coming, you begin to feel as boxed in by the twins' fate as they appear to feel.
That fate is set in motion, according to Medina's recollection, when the family moves from Michigan to Palos Verdes. Medina's voice is cynical but naïve too, a clever combination that has you hoping she sees what's coming as clearly as you do. Here, she says, her dad hopes to be a "heart surgeon to the rich and famous", but multiple scenes Medina doesn't witness reveal that her mother is feeling increasingly out of place, distrustful of her husband (who has a history of cheating), as well as fretful and depressed. Sandy's steps off her own deep end are predictable: she's uncomfortable with the wealthy ladies in her new neighborhood, she's unable to talk with Phil, and she's prone to take pills that loom in aesthetically blurry closeups. Jim sees the problem right away, identifying the neighbors as "pathetic plastic people".
It's a judgment Medina shares, but she doesn't stand up for her mother as much as she confides in us, the viewers. Her complaint is more novelistic: "Their beaches were not private," she narrates, "but they might as well be. The residents didn't want any outsiders ruining their zillion dollar views, either. No streetlights, fast food stands, or apartment buildings, all outlawed by the city ordinance. A chaos of stars filled the skies of Palos Verdes, but everything else was regulated."
Rejecting regulations but immersed in movie metaphors, Medina and Jim find their own forms of chaos, reframing it as a kind of freedom. Surfing is one gorgeous means of escape, captured in frames huge and mobile and thrilling. Drugs and drinking are more mundane, their effects rendered here in blurry, noisy montages, unsurprising and leading nowhere except where you know they will. As much as Medina might be rethinking such scenes in her voiceover, the weight of their familiarity leaves viewers gasping for air.
In lieu of adult support, the teens are left to themselves. As Medina learns about the history of native tribes in the area, she comes to imagine herself as a member of a new tribe of two, with Jim. They have to hold on to each other's souls, she presses him, a request she feels with more and more urgency as he slips away from her -- and from you, too. Jim's difficulties might be mired in clichés, though it's a little hard to tell, since Medina doesn't see and so, doesn't explain.
She doesn't see her mother much either, but the film fills in for Sandy. Her pain, her mania, her efforts to hang on and her determination to let go are telegraphed in scenes full of explanation, whether Jim is helping Medina understand their father's betrayal and their mother's response ("She's not crazy, she's just sad") or the camera is granting access to Sandy's despair. That despair is surely daunting and Sandy's efforts to think her way out of it are admirable, even if their consequences are foregone. Trapped in her moment, she longs for her past, projecting it onto her daughter: "You're so young and pretty," Sandy tells Medina. "Find someone who loves you for who you are on the inside, not your face. People get tired of faces."
This truth might ground The Tribes of Palos Verdes, which takes notice of the how quickly surfaces break down. This truth also makes Sandy's experience -- beyond what Medina can see or imagine -- the film's most compelling. The twins' ebbs and flows, by contrast, lapse into gauzy platitudes. Jim, who slips away from Medina even more quickly than her mother, remains imprecise -- this despite Medina's assertions that he is "My one true friend, one person in the world I could really talk to." It's a "twin thing", she says by way of obscuring their relationship.
In another movie, their hard to articulate relationship might be compelling, enigmatic, appealing. Here, though, it's tragedy around the corner, at once too obvious and too elusive. The kids are beautiful, as is their new world. But their beauty, as Medina notes of Palos Verdes, is too familiar, too much like a movie you've seen before.