Toward the beginning of Boundaries, beleaguered single mom Laura (Vera Farmiga), her shiftless father Jack (Christopher Plummer), and her oddball teenage son, Henry (Lewis MacDougall), set off on a multi-state West Coast road trip in Jack’s old Rolls-Royce. An hour into the journey, they carelessly run out of gas. This cul-de-sac of a plot development provides such an obvious metaphor for the tedium of the movie at large that pointing it out—picking on this scrappy, heartfelt paean to struggling underdogs—feels almost unfair. Then again, Boundaries rarely shies away from obvious metaphors; it’s a movie that sends its characters on a journey with a destination that turns out to be, get this, inconsequential, featuring a heroine who can’t stop adopting needy stray dogs and cats despite having her own problems to deal with. Quirky indie dramedies that live by hackneyed metaphors can die by them, too.
And boy, is Boundaries fine with being a quirky indie dramedy. Farmiga, a wonderful performer, seems to have done a temporary career-swap with Toni Collette; while family-drama mainstay Collette stars in the horror picture Hereditary, Conjuring alum Farmiga leads a dysfunctional family that’s just one self-help-obsessed dad away from Little Miss Sunshine. Henry is a social outcast who has a hard time connecting with both his classmates and his authority figures, channeling his artistic impulses into challenging art where he depicts people he doesn’t know very well fully nude. This might better resemble the intended outsider-art eccentricity if his desire to show people their speculative portraits didn’t play like mocking harassment.
At least Henry seems like a genuine creep (if not necessarily intentionally). Jack is an 85-year-old man who bravely flouts society’s conventions by behaving exactly the same way as the entire elderly population of American indie movies: He swears, he schemes, and he speaks his mind bluntly! How will audiences recover from this bold feat of subversion, wherein an older white male does whatever he wants and gets away with it? (At this point, it might feel fresh to depict the elderly as genuinely enfeebled.) Even Jack’s duplicity is second-hand. He tears a page from the Royal Tenenbaum playbook by pretending to be dying of cancer to convince Laura to drive him down to Los Angeles, where he will live with his other daughter JoJo (Kristen Schaal) after getting kicked out of his retirement home.
Jack fails to mention to Laura that he was kicked out for growing and selling marijuana, though he quickly lets Henry in on his plan to turn the road trip into a dope-selling odyssey, which involves making pit stops to see various colorful characters from the family’s past, including Henry’s deadbeat dad (Bobby Cannavale). Laura, who opens the movie specifically indicating to her therapist that she has trouble saying no to her neglectful father, steadfastly refuses to believe that he is genuinely interested in rejoining her life. Meanwhile, Henry, who is seen called to the principal’s office for a physical altercation and disdains his own absent father, is nervous to the point of nausea over the world’s mildest drug deals and also inexplicably enamored of Jack’s wheeling and dealing.
In other words, these characters are loose bundles of contradictory yet solvable quirks, twined together with indie-family clichés. It doesn’t play as opportunistic, exactly; Boundaries clearly wants to approximate the messy rhythms of real life. But its way into this material is constant oscillation between broad antics and hopped-up domestic drama. Either way it goes, there is a lot of yelling.
Sometimes, writer-director Shana Feste feeds her characters a sharp line (“I can’t date people I like; it wouldn’t be fair to them,” Laura tells a would-be suitor), or a quiet moment of connection, like a reunion scene between Farmiga and Cannavale that these two pros nearly make work by sheer force of will. These are bright spots in a movie sorely lacking them, sometimes literally. Much of Boundaries has overcast, drab lighting meant to mimic the weather of its Pacific Northwest settings. It’s supposed to be evocative, but in many scenes the characters just look dim and overly backlit, to the point of obscuring the actors’ expressiveness. There might be another metaphor in there somewhere.