The promotion materials for Arcadia centers around the presence of John Hawkes. Hawkes, who has been working in film since the late 80’s, seems to be finally getting his due lately: his turns in Winter’s Bone, The Sessions, and Martha Marcy May Marlene have all made really good movies great ones. Here, he’s turning in good work again as an imperfect, defensive father doing his best to keep his children sane as they move to California.
Arcadia centers around a father and his three children (two daughters, and a son) as they travel to the eponymous town on the west coast. By and large, the film is a coming of age story wrapped in a family road-trip plot. It’s a small budget indie film, but it never feels like aspects of the movie were hindered for the sake of the budget. What matters here is the characters – how they develop across this 3,000 mile road trip and how they interact with one another. There are few diversions along the way, but they serve more as ways to examine how the father-children dynamic working throughout the road trip.
Aside from Hawkes, the performances of the children are really quite good. The youngest child, Nat (played by the excellent Ty Simpkins), has some particularly precocious things to say, but the writing and the performance never lets his interactions come across as trite, contrived, or too on-the-nose. The daughters are good too: Ryan Simpkins’ moody teenager never comes across as too angry or unsympathetic, and Kendall Toole plays well as eldest child although she never gets the screen time/lines she deserves.
As a debut (Olivia Silver as writer and director), Arcadia is very tastefully crafted and confident. The story here is simple, and it is well paced and shot. The gritty, handheld camera work is reminiscent of Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it serves to make the film’s setting look bleak and timeless. Information is divulged slowly throughout the movie, and doing so slowly changes the way characters are seen. At one point, it is unclear if the family is traveling towards a new future, or if they are running away from their own past. By the end, the answer is clear, and it inspires a sense of hope not only for these characters, but for families all around just like them. The movie gets better as it goes on, and it earns real pathos in its final moments.
The best parts of Arcadia come from the small details: the middle daughter, in one letter to her mother writes “no big arguments”, although you have to look to see it; the father goes behind his daughters and locks their car doors when exiting; Caroline quickly ordering meatloaf at a restaurant (the same meal her father orders). There are some genuinely funny moments here and just as many heartbreaking ones. The story easily works as a whole, but what makes this movie worth seeing is its performances and its attention to detail.
Arcadia comes with a few nice bonuses: biographies of the main cast, a trailer of the movie, and the short film on which the feature is based. The short film, Little Canyon, is more or less a condensed version of Arcadia. Although the cast (with the exception of Toole) is different, many of the shots and dialog are recreated in the feature-length version.