Greta (Ryan Simpkins) is a 12-year-old girl, frustrated the sudden decision to move across the country from a lovely New England home to California so that her father, Tom (John Hawkes) can take a new job. Reluctantly, she climbs in a station wagon with her younger brother, Nat (Ty Simpkins), and her older sister Caroline (Kendall Toole) for a 2,848 mile cross-country road trip, with their mother supposedly following shortly thereafter. As the trip continues, a distance begins to grow between Greta and her father, thanks both to his irritability when it comes to dealing with people, and her increasing suspicion that he is not being honest about what's happening between himself and her mother.
Arcadia is a small, simple movie, crafted with an eye toward the emotional state of children weathering the storm of adult family drama. Directed and written by Olivia Silver (an expansion of her short film, Little Canyon), this is a surprisingly assured effort, packed with impressive performances by a core cast of four people. Although the story could easily be a set-up for generic melodrama, Silver is adept at rooting the film in the perspective of her protagonist, and has made smart choices while changing and updating the script from a short film into a feature.
The film rests on the shoulders of Ryan Simpkins, and she does an impressive job capturing Greta's frustration at straddling the line between childhood and adulthood. She is regularly teased by Caroline for continuing to carry around her stuffed rabbit, Harrison, but she's also fully conscious of the way her father continues to slip out in order to make angry phone calls to somebody, and his patronizing attitude when he refuses to fill her in on the details. With many young actors, there is a strange emphasis on their adult qualities when it comes to the way they deliver lines or play scenes, but Silver taps into Simpkins' fragility and shyness in order to emphasize her youthfulness.
The tone of the short film is a little darker, with all of the scenes featuring Greta's frustration placed together in a continuous program. Silver's update of the script includes a little more subtlety in the dialogue, but more importantly, some key bonding moments between Greta and Caroline that fleshes out their relationship as sisters. In one light scene, Caroline teaches Greta how to shave her legs, and in another, she shares a memory of their mother, moments that give both characters more facets beyond the fighting they do from the original script. (Oddly enough, Simpkins has less scenes, and therefore, less of an on-screen relationship with her real-life brother Ty Simpkins, who recently appeared in Iron Man 3). Hawkes, as the father, makes less of an impression, playing a role that feels very similar to other characters he's played, but there are a couple of very effective moments in which he says nothing at all.
Silver's direction is unobtrusive, capturing the landscape of Middle America on 16mm in a way that feels similar to the small Polaroid photographs Greta takes throughout the trip. Unlike some road trip films, where there's a subtle emphasis on the action taking place within such beautiful surroundings, Silver seems to hold them at a distance, as if the tension between the family members is keeping the vistas at arm's length. It's a technique that fits in with the overall approach of the film, which only builds to one really explosive moment, and even then, it's a brief one. Some viewers may be put off by the film's tiny emotional epiphanies and minor struggles, but it's an intimacy that allows the focus to remain on Silver's characters, which are all authentic and honest.
Maybe it's just the clean, classy border on each of their DVDs, giving their releases a Criterion-esque unity, but somehow even "big head" Photoshop artwork looks better on their releases than others. The disc comes in a transparent eco-friendly DVD case, with a note by Film Movement and another by the director printed on the reverse side of the artwork.
The Video and Audio
Since Film Movement titles generally only feature a short film as supplementary material, it seems they've perfected the art of SD-DVD transfers, as this 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is one of the best I've seen as of late. Other than some extremely brief artifacting, primarily in a night scene with the family stopped by the side of the road, this is an excellent transfer that faithfully recreates the soft, pleasing appearance of the film's 16mm photography. As is to be expected, there are also no complaints about the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which is mainly good at capturing the nuance of phone calls heard from a distance, only really utilizing the surround channels when music from the soundtrack kicks in. The only downside: as with most small distributors, the disc lacks any subtitle or caption options.
"Little Canyon" (20:33) is the short film version of Arcadia. Around 60 or 70% of the material was redone word-for-word in the finished picture, creating an odd sense of deja vu and emphasizing the flatness of the amateur actors, but it's interesting a historical piece in the way it illustrates all the improvements made in the adaptation, including the performance by Kendall Toole, who plays the older sister in both the short and the feature.
Arcadia is a fine film that shies away from the theatrics that usually accompany small dramas like this one (as if big acting will make up for little spectacle). Film Movement's DVD looks excellent, and the single supplement provides an interesting "compare and contrast" opportunity. Recommended.
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