King Of California
A popular form of film is the quest. Take a couple of very different people, put them together and have them search for something impossible to find. This is a hold over from some of the greats in literature. Just look at Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho on their journey to fight the forces of evil. In more recent times there is Frodo and Samwise desperately seeking to destroy the infamous ‘Ring’. In this specific sub-genre the quest is typically a metaphor for the quest of the two main characters to find and really understand each other. There is another type of movie that has a similar format, the father and daughter flick. Here you usually have an estranged father trying to reconnect with his teen or adult daughter. It was only a matter of time before somebody attempted to bring the two kinds of flicks together. The result is ‘The King of California’. While it does have a rather silly story line the film works overall because of some very good performances and a director with a great eye for cinema. Like so many independent films this one has a touch of experimentation in it. Like many such experiments the results are mixed; not a full success but also not a failure. What you get here is a film that will entertain and invoke an emotional response in the audience. First Look is releasing this film to DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray and it is well worth the time to take a look. While there are flaws in the film the combination of humanity and whimsy carries it fairly well.
The film opens with a teaser. Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) and her father, Charlie (Michael Douglas) are dressed in dark sweat paints and hoodies trying to open a door. An alarm goes off and the pair runs away. The narration by Miranda explains that she is a minor and not legally responsible for her actions but some things have to be taken on a case by case basis. We then move five months back in time. Miranda is not you typical 16 year old girl. Unlike the spoiled princesses shown on MTV she has to work hard just to get by. Two years ago her mother, who had a career as a fairly successful hand model left. She was sick and tired of putting up with Miranda’s father. He was a jazz musician who also happened to be suffering from bi-polar disorder. Soon after mom left Charlie was committed to the Santa Clarita's Department of Behavioral Health for a two year stay. In the mean time Miranda had to learn to take care of herself. She had all the responsibilities of an adult and had to forego the rest of her childhood. She took a job at a local McDonalds frequently working double shifts just to pay the rent. When either Child Services or Child Welfare arrived to check up on her she managed to keep them at bay by saying she was living with one parent or another. It seems that one agency knew about her mother leaving and the other that her father was committed but with the usual administrative lack of interdepartmental communication the ruse was working. As her narration explains having both parents away provided mixed feelings, When Charlie was around there was always a sense that something was about to happen, a feeling on unpredictability. On her own Miranda was able to get into a daily routine to keep herself busy and her mind off of things.
Then the time she dreaded and hoped for came, Charlie’s time in the institution was up. When he was released he came out with wild, unkempt hair and bushy beard and a mass of medication in his pocket. The meds where not so much to help him retain sanity, that ship had sailed long ago, the best that could be hoped for was to make him semi-functional in the real world. His first discussion with his daughter is about something he thinks he heard somewhere. Naked Chinese guys were coming ashore in California with their clothes in large plastic bags. This does not exactly fill Miranda with hopes that dad is better. They go back to the old family home, once in the middle of a field; now surrounded by newly built little houses. Charlie eventually tells Miranda about a 17th century Spanish explorer, Juan Florismarte Garcés. He buried gold coins and religious artifacts in what is now Southern California. The key to the treasure is in the diary of the priest. Charlie hopes that if he and Miranda can find the treasure he can finally provide for her. She is naturally resistant to the idea but ultimately agrees to the quest. The one set back is the clues that Charlie follows leads them to suspecting the treasure is now buried beneath a Costco.
This is the freshman effort as both writer and director for Mike Cahill. He certainly doesn’t feel like a first timer was behind this film. There is a lack of polish but that just helps to get the audience emotionally invested in the story and the characters. A more professional feel would take you away from the almost fairy tale aspect of the film. It is this mood that is set that makes this film better than many other Indies of late. The pacing of the film is like watching a gentle river flow. Nothing dramatic happens but you are pulled in by it anyhow. Most of the exposition is split between the narration of 16 year old Miranda and flashbacks to her younger days. There Miranda is played by Allisyn Ashley Arm who does an excellent job. Cahill is a natural story teller. Having such a capricious plot takes a lot to sell to the audience but he does it. Underlying everything is a tender tale of a insane father trying to connect fort the first time with his a daughter forced to grow up too fast. I look forward to seeing what this talent man comes up with next.
While there are other people in the cast this is set like a two person play. Fortunately two extremely talented actors have those roles. Michael Douglas built a career playing strong leading men. These men typically were powerful with slicked back hair giving a visual queue that he is in complete control. In his role as Charlie the hair once again shows what is inside the man; a mass of disarrayed strands going in every direction. Douglas is at the point in his career where everyone knows he is one of the best actors around. He is not afraid to let a younger actor take center stage and give a stellar performance. This leads us to Evan Rachel Wood. For a young woman barely out of her teens she has some experience. Her big break was in ‘Thirteen’ where she played a self destructive teen. Wood has the control and pacing necessary to make her one of the most sought after actresses of her generation. There is a real chemistry between the two that is amazing to watch.
One thing I know when I open the mail and find a screener from First Look Entertainment, I’m in for something different. In this case I had heard some things about this film and I was looking forward to it mostly because of the two leads. I was not disappointed. This is another bull’s eye for First Look. If you don’t have an art house near by you most likely miss a lot of Indies like this. Thanks to First Look’s commitment to such films you can add this one to your collection and enjoy something special.