Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact, not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very real. That is why there are night-lights.
–J.M. Barrie, The Adventures of Peter Pan
Long ago retreated to their own corners of Neverland, perpetual adolescents Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) aren’t ready when their father needs their help. The disruption is abrupt and immediately life-changing, though the siblings don’t quite understand that fine point at first. At the start of The Savages, Wendy gets a phone call from a “home health care professional” in Arizona, informing her that her dad has been “handling his fecal matter,” that is, writing on the bathroom wall with his own shit.
Appropriately horrified to hear Lenny (Philip Bosco) is “acting out” so crudely, Wendy isn’t precisely surprised. She and Jon gave up on him years before, having endured miserable, motherless upbringing (her reasons for leaving are never explained, only that the kids resented him and he was generically cruel). Now Wendy is an aspiring playwright in New York City, working cubicle temp jobs (she describes her latest as a “new, subversive, semi-autobiographical play,” citing influences from Jean Genet to Linda Barry) and spending short hours with her lover, Larry (Peter Friedman) while his wife thinks he’s walking the dog (“Feel how hard my cock is!” he urges, trying to convince Wendy to have sex with him on the floor).
As dreary as Wendy’s life may be — a point underscored in terse, affecting moments as she shops for Raisin Bran or gently pets Larry’s dog during their duller than dull sex — she’s still bothered when she sees her dad’s harshly yellow-and-green environment in Sun City (his newly deceased girlfriend’s house, now for sale by her kids). Distraught when she sees no photos of his family in the living room (“It’s like we don’t exist”), Wendy goes on to clean out Lenny’s room, where she finds eight-track tapes and golf balls in a drawer, as well as ancient photos of her and Jon as kids, hints of her dad’s life and memories before his dementia. Her minute-long reverie hardly makes up for the childhood lost; suddenly, she’s facing not only her dad’s mortality but her own deep sadness. It’s one of the many brief, heartbreaking scenes in Tamara Jenkins’ movie, mixes of bleak humor and acute insight, familiar and strange at the same time.
For now, Wendy accepts Jon’s brusque assessment, that they must find dad “a place” and get back to their own lives, no matter how much they loathe those lives. The Valley View, a dismal brick institution near Jon’s home in ever-snowy Buffalo (he’s an academic, specializing in “theater of social unrest” and writing a book on Brecht), offers vinyl wallpaper, bingo, and advice on “activities you can share with your confused elder on visiting day.” Though brother and sister peruse brochures with titles like “Basics of Dementia” over drinks and peanuts at the local bar, they’re not prepared for the process of being “adult children” of an ailing parent, or their own tensions and competitions; when Jon injures his back on his first swing in their racquetball game, she can’t help but laugh out loud at the contraption he has rigged at home, a head-harness that hangs him from a weight to “relive the pressure” on his spine. As they munch tuna melts and discuss their new obligations (they’ll both help dad through the holidays, despite Jon’s presumption that her “life’s much more portable than mine”), Wendy’s rapidly shifting expressions suggest she’s not going to sort out all her feelings — guilt, bitterness, disappointment, ambition, long-repressed empathy and generosity — in a month.
While the movie grants fleeting access to Jon or Lenny apart from Wendy, her story forms its center. She worries that the Valley View is too depressing or that her brother won’t marry his girlfriend (Cara Seymour), whose expired visa means she must return to Poland (when she cooks him eggs, Kasia notes, rolling her eyes and loving him nevertheless, “He cries,” but still, he can’t commit). Her new routine has Wendy rethinking her own choices. An early phone call with Larry shows one transition in seconds: at first she leans back into a bubble bath, the camera watching her smile from above the foot she extends in relaxed pleasure, while Jon tells her how much he misses her. The shot changes when he mentions his holiday travel plans (with his wife), as Wendy suddenly sees the relationship is over.
Changes in perspective make up most of the film, both subtle and obvious. Arranging one activity to share with his confused elder, Jon sets up a title for “movie night” at the Valley View, one of Lenny’s favorites, at least in Jon’s faulty memory, The Jazz Singer. Surrounded by black staff members, Wendy sees the movie anew, her (and Jon’s) lifelong insularity exposed and egregious. In another, equally awkward and self-absorbed moment, she imagines the kindness shown by one of her father’s caretakers, Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), to be a sign of sexual, even romantic, interest. That he doesn’t disparage her mistake or make her feel worse is a revelation, though it takes her a few steps to see it. Self-consciously presuming that Jimmy, a Jamaican immigrant, will think her play is “middle-class whining,” she’s moved by his assessment: “I think it’s sad.”
Jimmy here looks like a typical device, the working-class black man sent to save the white lady from her moral myopia. But the rescue is aptly incomplete and deeply uncomfortable, Wendy’s culpability visible. She is whining, and she is sad too. As Wendy and Jon contemplate their futures, perhaps with each other and definitely without their father, they also come to terms with their presents. The film considers their self-deceits and their discoveries with similar dispassion. Much to Wendy’s embarrassment, Jon asks Lenny, “What if you’re in a coma?”, desperately supposing that knowing his dad’s wishes will “make everything easier in the long run.” Lenny looks at him blankly, then asks, “What the hell kind of hotel is this?” It’s exactly the right question, in exactly the wrong situation, a situation that’s increasingly common and relentlessly hard.