By Kim Hughes
For a road-trip movie, Boundaries doesn’t have much momentum. It also shares considerable DNA with a host of other films propelled by the theme of familial bonding on the asphalt like Nebraska, Kodachrome, and Little Miss Sunshine, all of which better leverage the unpredictability of the highway for narrative heft and oddball laughs.
Vera Farmiga plays Laura, a soft-hearted single mom and animal rescuer whose main role in life seems to be that of doormat: to her rich and overbearing boss, to her shiftless ex-husband (Bobby Cannavale) and, especially, to her free-spirited father for whom the word responsibility is firmly in the abstract.
Artistic son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) gives Laura reason to live, but also gives her grief. Henry has been expelled from school and though Laura wants to enrol him in a program for gifted students, she doesn’t have the cash.
As fate would have it, Laura’s father Jack (an insanely spry 88-year-old Christopher Plummer) has just been booted from his retirement home for misbehaving. After the first of many, many Laura/Jack spats that virtually always end in his favour (because Laura is terrible at setting boundaries, gettit?), it’s agreed that Jack will live with other daughter JoJo (Kristen Schaal) in Los Angeles. If Laura and Henry will drive him there from Seattle, he’ll finance Henry’s education.
So begins the leaden would-be adventure which includes some truly lovely footage of the American west coast.
Unknown to Laura, Jack plans to unload a stash of pot to customers along the way, a scheme that quickly and mostly innocuously ensnares Henry but also, more meaningfully, tees up a series of fizzy cameos (Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd) as Jack — who may or may not be dying — makes his deliveries to old friends while taking stock one last time.
All of which sounds compelling. Yet despite committed performances all around, Boundaries stays firmly rooted in the meh. Much as we want to root for Laura, her constant whining about her unhappy childhood wins no empathy and drags things down.
She’d be much more interesting if she was angry, maybe even turning the old man in as revenge for her unstable youth or stealing something pawnable from her Henry’s decidedly unfatherly father. By the one-hour point, I’d have happily settled for a drunken tantrum and some broken dishes.
Instead, Laura wallows and sighs, fidgets and pouts, leaving an unapologetic and thoroughly blunted Jack to have all the fun as Henry meekly looks on. Sorry to say it, but scenes in Boundaries are actually stolen by dogs. It also pushes the corny-meter into the red.
Writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest, Country Strong) has said the film is based on her own relationship with her itinerant father, who has a small cameo as a construction worker scoring weed from Jack. And her heart is evident.
But most audience members have likely endured way worse childhoods than Laura and JoJo and ended up as funnier — certainly more complex and dynamic — adults than anyone portrayed here. Even the real-life Laura, director Feste, became a filmmaker able to boss around Peter Fonda, Vera Farmiga, and Christopher Plummer for a living. So, where’s all that chutzpah and sizzle?
Boundaries. Written and directed by Shana Feste. Starring Christopher Plummer, Vera Farmiga, Lewis MacDougall, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Fonda, and Bobby Cannavale. Opens July 6 in Toronto and Vancouver, July 13 in Montreal, and throughout the summer in other cities.