The depictions in movies of relationships between estranged daughters and fathers often don’t quite rang true to me. Think of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and how desperate Evan Rachel Wood’s Stephanie was to connect with her distant, screwup dad, even though there’s no real motive for her to want to do so. Sometimes these female characters seem like they’re just bottled up and waiting for daddy to come home, as if they simply cannot function without the love or attention of a patriarch. That’s at odds with how so many women I know in real life were trained early on to know that pining for a prodigal father’s return would be fruitless. So it’s nice that writer/director Shana Feste’s family comic drama Boundaries shows an adult woman reluctant to let her vagabond dad back into her life — for good reason. Yet, at the same time, it’s still a little disconcerting that, in the end, Feste attempts to tie a nice, neat bow around family reunification, even to the point of slighting her female protagonist.
Vera Farmiga plays Laura Jaconi, a frazzled single mom to Henry (Lewis MacDougall), a teen with a penchant for sketching unflattering nude caricatures of the adults around him. The two are close; she’s not necessarily a mother so much as she is a friend to her son. Laura’s got some very clear issues, in that she keeps impulsively taking in lost or hurt animals against her therapist’s advice. She attempts to nurse them back to health the same as she had done in the past for her broken dad Jack (Christopher Plummer), a pot-dealing octogenarian known to love ’em and leave ’em. She has vowed not to help him anymore, but the charming Jack convinces Laura to do one last favor: drive him, with all of his possessions, down to Los Angeles, where he’ll move in with Laura’s sister JoJo (Kristen Schaal).
Laura is the kind of woman who regularly lies to her own therapist, with whom she’s working on setting, yes, boundaries. Jack is a narcissist who thinks nothing of sneaking pounds of cannabis into his daughter’s car for the trip down the coast and convincing his grandkid to help him sell it. Neither dad nor daughter are perfect, but somehow Laura is presented as the less sympathetic of the two, with Jack always getting the upper hand and Laura being the buzzkill. When Laura finds the weed in the trunk, for instance, it’s she who’s arrested (for parking tickets), while Jack gets to poke fun at her for being a criminal. At least one too many times Feste seems to urge us to enjoy things going badly for Laura. Just once, I was hoping for Jack to be punished, but he’s the Teflon to Laura’s cast iron, and Feste seems to let him off the hook. (Side note: How would it play in a light comedy about black characters if one family member hid a felony’s amount of pot in the other’s trunk, with a funny scene of cops asking them to step out of the vehicle?)
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Where Feste best succeeds in Boundaries isn’t in the father-daughter relationship, which finds her straining for a tight resolution, but in the mother-son one, where the two actors vibe easily and persuasively off one another. A cute early scene has the two of them administering medicine to the pets together and then trying to sniff out the source of a pee scent (it was her jacket). There’s real love in that routine, and that’s where Farmiga and Feste shine.