An old light blue station wagon, a series of motels and an eccentric and volatile father serve as the backdrop for “Arcadia,” a film that traces a family’s journey from New England to their new home in Arcadia, Calif.
“Arcadia,” the debut feature film of UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television alumna Olivia Silver, tells the emotional story of a girl named Greta (Ryan Simpkins), her younger brother Nat (Ty Simpkins) and older sister Caroline (Kendall Toole),who embark on a road trip that will change the course of their lives.
Their father, Tom (John Hawkes), promises that the move will bring new and exciting opportunities for the family and that their mother will soon be joining them in Arcadia. But the tragic reality is that their family is being torn apart, even though Tom tries to disguise this truth with promises of new schools and a sunny climate.
Throughout the 3,000-mile journey, Greta constantly asks for her mother, sends her postcards and leaves voicemails on their home answering machine, all to no avail. Despite her father’s best efforts, Greta realizes that something isn’t quite right. These details set Greta up as the character who is most affected by the breakup of her family and through whose perspective the story is primarily told.
Greta, one of the film’s most relatable characters, is also coming of age during this trip, but finds it difficult to communicate with her father or relate to her boy-crazy sister in her mother’s absence. Even during the scenes in which she has no lines, her expressions and abrupt actions signal her uncertainty and reluctance regarding both the move and her family.
As Greta begins to learn, her family is changing in more ways than one, and her father is doing the best he can to provide for his children and cope with his own pain.
At times the film drags on and the trip can seem long even for the audience, but anyone who has ever been on a long road trip will sympathize with these well-written characters. At first they seem like an impatient dad, sulky teenagers and an eager young boy, but Silver explores other dimensions of their personalities. For example, Greta seems like a moody and somewhat immature girl at first, but she is the one who needs her mother the most.
Butting heads with family members on a long car ride isn’t exactly revolutionary in the film world, but the way in which Silver develops her complex characters, particularly Greta and Tom, gives the film the potential to make audiences smile at some moments and tear up at others. For example, Greta and Nat spend most of the ride with a Crock-Pot resting on the seat between them, which creates an air of mild humor as the audience sees the lengths Tom has gone to in order to pack all their belongings into a relatively small car.
However, many more scenes convey the family’s tumultuous state, such as the one in which the family is all set to visit the Grand Canyon until Tom angrily refuses to pay the high entrance fee, or the ones in which Greta makes repeated payphone calls to her mother in hopes of hearing her voice again. Tom makes a lot of promises and his children, especially the younger two, expect him to deliver.
These scenes show that Olivia is able to create a poignant sense of a family’s unfortunate reality thanks, in part, to the talented actors in the film. Hawkes does a commendable job portraying Tom’s mood swings and sometimes uncontrollable temper.
Hawkes effectively conveys Tom’s struggle as a father who is doing his best to keep his family together, but isn’t always able to connect with his kids in the way that they need him to. Tom even kicks Greta out of the car during one intense scene.
Real-life siblings Ryan and Ty Simpkins also play off each other in a way that conveys the all-too-familiar relationship between a naive, annoying little brother and an increasingly mature sister who is starting to think for herself and discover the truth on her own.
This film’s story may seem simple, but its family centered message is far-reaching. Audiences may even see some of themselves in these characters, from a dad trying to get it right, to children hoping their family will one day be whole again.