Back in college one mandatory subject I loved was anthropology. The study of other cultures was fascinating. Looking at how primitive people survive in their environments helped a lot in understanding our own society. After all most human beings no matter where or how they live have many of the same motivations. Of late there have been a couple of films that took the objective eye of the anthropologist and turned it directly on the sub cultures of our own societies. The first was the ‘Nanny Diaries’ which took a light hearted examination of the tribe of humans known as the Upper East Siders in New York City. Now there is another film with the same general theme, ‘Fierce People’, the latest work from actor turned director Griffin Dunne. Unlike the other film this one is much darker in tone. Here the focus is on the elite country club set. This movie takes a hard often harsh look at how the privileged in our society live their lives apart from the maddening crowds of the common man. The screenplay was adapted by Dirk Wittenborn from his own novel of the same name. While the script is uneven at times it doesn’t falter in its satirical look at those at the top of the social pyramid.
The premise actually works very well here. There is a certain satisfaction in reducing the rich to the same examinational standards as used with primitive cultures. This is also a coming of age story. The young protagonist is a messed up kid with an unconventional upbringing but he manages to hold on to his sanity but removing himself from the world he is forced to live in. By distancing himself in the fashion of an anthropologist studying a primitive tribe he can externalize the very forces that are working against him. On the surface it would appear that the young man is fortunate to have access to the rich and successful. Upon closer consideration he finds they are superficial and for the most part devoid of admirable qualities. Dunne does a very good job in getting this across to the audience. He starts off with a very funny film and slowly as he approaches the third act permits it to get darker in nature. Since Dunne is still very much a working actor his directorial style is naturally geared to highlighting the talents of his cast. Some directors like to move the story along with slick cinematography and lighting but Dunne knows he has an excellent cast. He lets them tell the story and uses the camera in a voyeuristic fashion. There is also some cleaver inter-cutting of anthropological research style footage that juxtaposes with the shots of the wealthy ‘tribe’. This brings home the premise as well as providing some great laughs. This film had been making the Indy film festival circuit some years ago but apparently was unable to find a proper release. Now Lion’s Gate has brought this little gem of a movie to DVD.
Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) is fifteen years old and he has never met his father. Dad is an anthropologist working in South America studying the Yanomani tribe. Because of their constant conflicts and out right warfare they are known as the ‘Fierce People’. As the film opens Finn is engaging in the only contact he has with his father, watching home movies Dad made of the tribe. Recently Finn received a surprise from Dad, a copy of his documentary and an invitation to spend the summer with him in the field. His mom, Liz (Diane Lane) had been a professional massage therapist with a degree in Swedish massage. Now she is broken down and addicted to cocaine and alcohol. She sits chain smoking and drinking watching ‘Speed Racer’ with Finn. She also brags that an extremely rich and powerful man, Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland) once gave her a thousand dollar tip for nothing more than an hour long backrub. Finn is all too used to his mother’s bad habits; she nonchalantly gets up to sort a few lines of her coke while they are watching their cartoons. One morning Finn awakes to his mother shouting from under a bookcase that had fallen on her. She is out of coke and Finn needs her to go for his passport if he is to go visit with his father. He runs out to score for her. Unfortunately just as he makes the purchase the place is busted and Finn is arrested, so much for the trip to see dad. Liz may be messed up but she realizes that something has to change. She flushes the last of the coke she obtained and asks Finn for the phone. In desperation Liz calls up her ‘client’ Osborne who agrees to let them spend some time in the guest house of his palatial New Jersey estate.
For Finn the journey was only over the Hudson River but it might has well have been to another continent. He was now surrounded by two basic types of people, the ultra rich and those who serve them. Finn finds an old society magazine and uses the photos to piece together a tribal hierarchy. Of course Osborne is the chief of the tribe. Like the Fierce People his status is based on the enemies crushed and the number of wives; although in his case the wives are sequential not simultaneous. His daughter, wonderfully played by Elizabeth Perkins resents the appearance of Liz; perhaps fearing that another wife might dilute the inheritance. Then there is one of the grandsons, Bryce (Chris Evans). Finn eventually becomes friends with him. The relationship that drives Finn the most is with the granddaughter Maya (Kristen Stewart). Finn immediately has a crush on her that soon turns to love.
The film holds together until the middle of the second act where a brutal homosexual rape is introduced as a plot device. This completely changes the entire mood of the piece dragging down the momentum that had been building up to that point. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a plot twist but this was too sudden and drastic. There are also some extraneous plot points and others that are not fully developed. Some examples are the true nature of Liz’s relationship to Osborne and some of the intra-familiar relationships.
What goes a long way to saving this film is Dunne’s choice to keep it as a character study even after the dark turn. It allows his cast to make a transformation and change the direction of their performances. Anton Yelchin seems at home in his role here. He should; it seems very similar to the part he played on the now cancelled cable series, ‘Huff’. He is the sensitive, awkward teenaged boy with more intelligence than most of the adults around him. Diane Lane takes on one of the grittier roles of her incredible career. She is excellent as the mother who knows she has messed up big time and has to change for the sake of her devoted son. When ever he is on the screen Donald Sutherland owns the shot. He is more than an actor, he is a commanding presence.
Lion’s Gate has given this film a chance with the DVD release. Take advantage of it and give this film a try. The ending is a bit rough but this is a fine example of dark comedy and worth the time.