The estranged family road movie has become a genre unto itself, especially in the indie world. Perhaps we can blame it on the runaway success of “Little Miss Sunshine,” but more likely, it’s the easy conventions that make for a quick budget-friendly family movie. The ripe-for-drama contained space, opportunities to incorporate many different quirky characters at stops along the way and a built-in story arc make the genre appealing for many different reasons. But all these films feel the same, and therefore, they aren’t very interesting. The genre is too well-trodden and conventional for Shana Feste’s “Boundaries” to gain any traction — the tires here are bald.
The film, written and directed by Feste, is essentially the tale of one woman and the terrible, frustrating men in her life. That’s an interesting story right there — how Laura (Vera Farmiga) navigates the boundaries she has set in place with her con man father, Jack (Christopher Plummer), and philandering ex, Leonard (Bobby Cannavale), while also trying to parent her teenage son, Henry (Lewis MacDougall). But “Boundaries” gets distracted from this with all the bells and whistles of the road trip.
“Boundaries” is what happens when Laura does away with all her carefully crafted boundaries and lets the problematic men in her life back in. In need of money for a special school for Henry, she agrees to drive her father from Seattle to Los Angeles in his vintage Rolls Royce so he isn’t institutionalized by the state. What she doesn’t know is Jack’s promised fortune is contained in the pounds of marijuana he stows in her trunk. Off they go, with a car full of stray dogs, Jack making drug deals down the Pacific Coast.
“Boundaries” loads up on oddball characters (played by Christopher Lloyd, Peter Fonda and Kristen Schaal) and wacky situations to pad out the story, which is essentially Laura figuring out her ex is toxic in the same way her dad is, but also that she needs to let her father in, too — especially for Henry, who thrives on the male attention.
Farmiga, a formidable actress, spins her wheels as the neurotic and harried Laura with a heightened energy, contrasting the easy cool of Plummer as Jack. Rarely has Plummer been this funny and relaxed, and he’s simply a treat to watch.
Feste has a great sense of timing, and with the actors, the comic beats never stop. The pace rolls along, but the film is entirely too long, with some unnecessary scenes that don’t necessarily move the narrative forward. The cinematography, by Sara Mishara, which goes for a sense of realism, is distractingly dark. Scenes are either backlit or shot at twilight, and the whole thing looks like it’s gone through an unappealing brownish filter. It’s no visual treat.
“Boundaries” fails to draw a boundary with itself — going on too long, adding too many over-the-top characters and shying away from the real issue at hand: How can Laura draw a boundary and be respected by the men in her life? The film never answers that question, going for the Hollywood happy ending instead.