Sprocket Holes is an irregular column focused on small release films either playing limited engagements in major cities or available on VOD. As well as appreciating indies on the fringes of the festival circuit, it also takes a second look at under the radar, underappreciated, unheard of films that have slipped through the celluloid cracks.
By dawn's early light, twelve-year-old Greta's dad, Tom wakes her up and packs her and her brother and sister into their beat up old station wagon. Not just for having been woken at dusk to take a 3,000 mile road trip from leafy New England to the California desert are the kids surprised. It's actually happening.
Greta (Ryan Simpkins) has just returned from Summer camp and when Tom (John Hawkes) excitedly asks his daughter if she told all her friends (of which the sullen pre-teen has none) about the big move. Greta confesses she thought he was just mouthing off. Something Tom is prone to do, being all hot air with very little follow through. All his talk about a new job, new friends and how much better things'll be in their California paradise is just par for the course, and it's sad to see what a jaded opinion Greta holds of her father at such a tender age. Spinning more lies than he knows what to do with, promises of swimming pools and horse-riding lessons are tossed of with unthinking fecklessness. Tom doesn't even bother with the pretense of sounding like he believes in what he's selling. He knows it, Greta knows it, but to a child, a parent's word is one to be counted on, and so Greta can't help but hope her father might actually be telling the truth this time. What Greta doesn't know is that leaving her childhood home, means leaving childhood behind with it.
To more objective, adult eyes, nothing is quite right here, be it the way they're sneaking off like unwelcome squatters from their own home, that the family dog is so casually left to fend for himself or the fact that Mum is nowhere to be seen. Supposedly she's upset by the move and wants to make her own way to California a few days later from her parents' home, but why then has Greta not seen her mother in over a month?
In telling the story through Greta's eyes, first time writer-director Olivia Silver doesn't fall prey to the same mistakes routinely made by indies about tough childhoods. Free of impressionistic flourishes or sob story voiceover, she never confuses banal adolescent woes with profundity and the point of view is never so myopic that it determines and misrepresents the other family members. Directing with empathy and insight, Silver leaves enough room for us to consider Greta's father and siblings on their own terms. We understand why older sister Caroline (Kendall Toole, reprising her role from Silver's original short film) is more focused on the boyfriend she's leaving behind than any of her family's problems. And while Tom is being far from straight with his kids, filling their heads with fantasies that can only disappoint and hurt them in the end, we are sympathetic to the reasons behind his parenting methods.
Jobless for the last six months and trying to raise three children whilst in the midst of a messy estrangement from a bi-polar wife casting herself in the role of victim, this is a man at the end of a very frazzled rope. Staying in various motels along the way, Tom blares late night shopping channels and infomercials at inconsiderate volume after lights out, making enough noise so that he might just for a moment - even while sleeping - stop thinking about how in over his head he is. All he can think about are the responsibilities he can barely manage and the answers he's expected to have but doesn't. Sensing he's losing his kids in the most crucial years of parental support, Tom will do anything to hang on to them and as the lies get bigger, his children learn to indulge him rather than face the truth he's unwilling to talk about.
With the same qualities of warmth, humanity and understanding that defined John Hawkes' Oscar-snubbed performance in The Sessions and which make him such a companionable presence on screen, Hawkes plays Tom's flaws not as faults but misguided fatherly devotion. Profane arguments with the in-laws over the phone are "business calls" and letting road rage get the better of you is an act of child protection; more well-meaning lies from a guy just trying to do the right thing. Setting an example and doing the right thing is hard in a world which no longer considers it a priority, and more than once Tom memorably butts heads with the governing bureaucracy.
Younger brother Nat (Ty Simpkins, Ryan's real-life brother and star of Insidious) is a thin-skinned boy, worryingly attuned to (if barely understanding) the family tensions stirring in the station wagon as it hurtles toward Shangri-La. We see the boy wince every time Greta tries Tom's patience with questions about their mother but he's able to put this out of mind by focusing on Dad's promised pit stop at the Grand Canyon. The girls have warned him not to get his hopes up, but Tom assures his son otherwise, Nat expectedly counting down the miles. A U-turn right outside the Grand Canyon after disputing the pricey entrance fee has Tom choosing principles over promises and young Nat in floods of tears. Wanting to teach his kids the difference between right and wrong, it's a harsh lesson they needn't have traveled thousands of miles to learn. In Tom's own word's "a promise is a promise", wallet moths be dammed.
Even for this cruel and insensitive overreaction, Silver refuses to cast aspersions on Tom. Addressing the reality that he's long been out of work, when you're forking out for four in the current economy, all the gas, fast food and cheap motel rooms are anything but. Hawkes is on the same page, his downturned face at dinnertime an unspoken reminder of his dwindling bank balance. When his insistent girls finally tire of takeaway and Tom splashes out on a sit down diner, he's met with minimum wage bad attitude from the waitress and gets a shot of wine when he orders a glass. His resultant flip-out at authority is a direct riff on the iconic diner scene in Five Easy Pieces but in the film's most charged moment, Hawkes is outraged enough to make it his own.
With Hawkes giving it his all, credit casting director Emily Schweber (Chrystal, That Evening Sun) for finding kids who can deliver equally poignant performances. Having already played the daughter of Maggie Gyllenhaal's downtrodden, desperate single Mum in Sherrybaby, Ryan Simpkins is a perfect fit for this part, and for good reason she was the first child to win the Best Actress award at the NYC Film Festival in 2008 for the otherwise repugnant Surveillance.
The road travelled from East Coast to West is one pulling Greta in different directions, a coming of age conflict acutely well-drawn and tenderly played by Simpkins whose old head on young shoulders recalls the formative, pre-Winter's Bone performances of Jennifer Lawrence. Separation anxiety from her mother intensifies Greta's childlike dependence, a regression that's partly an effort to elicit parental concern from her father. At the same time, her body is rapidly maturing and, when Tom eventually reaches out to her after she has her first period en route, understandable confusion and embarrassment make him the last person Greta wishes to confide in. Still a child but experienced enough to know not to take her Dad at his word, Greta finds herself totemically dependent upon Harrison, the stuffed bunny rabbit she's carried with her everywhere since birth and can't let go of.
Rushing towards adolescence at the speed of the landscape whizzing by her window, a scratch card rubbed off as they pass through each new state is symbolic of the lottery of the adult world that Greta now finds herself on the threshold of. You cant choose your family, but at at least she has a parent who cares and is there for her when her can do no wrong mother isn't.
A cherished box of fading polaroids from better times help Greta come to the gradual realization that while she didn't want things to turn out this way, clearly her father didn't either, and no matter how hard she clings to Harrision, childhood is a state of impermanence that can't be had over. Greta's childhood is far from perfect and therein lies Arcadia's lesson about appreciating parents who want the same for their kids and who must be forgiven when they can't give it to them.
NYC Theatrical Run Remaining Screenings
$10 tickets to the NYC screenings can be purchased here
All screenings take place at:
147 Front Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(F train to York Street)
Tuesday, April 16th, 7:30PM (Late screening at 9:45PM)
"Film Cinematography: The Enduring Power of Film in a Digital Age"
Featuring Q&A with ARCADIA writer-director Olivia Silver and guest Andrew Maclean, writer-director of ON THE ICE, official selection in competition at Sundance 2011 and winner of the 2011 Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Wednesday, April 17th, 7:30PM (Late screening at 9:45PM)
"Director & Producer Partnerships"
Featuring Q&A with ARCADIA writer-director Olivia Silver and Adam Spielberg, founder of Filament Productions.
Thursday, April 18th, 7:30PM (Late screening at 9:45PM)
"Music in Film: The Art of the Original Film Score"
Featuring Q&A with ARCADIA writer-director Olivia Silver and special guest Jeff Prystowsky of the celebrated Providence-based band The Low Anthem (responsible for the film's haunting original score), moderated by Emmy-Award winning sound designer Tom Paul.