Awkward road trips involving dysfunctional families seem to be the theme of every other independent film, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for another good one. All you need is smart writing and solid actors committed to the cause.
Both are in abundance in The Discoverers, a film that takes interest in the journey of Lewis and Clark to the extreme. Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) is a college professor who is about to publish a book on a little-known key figure from that historical trek.
His plans to take a road trip with his two kids, Zoe and Jack (Madeleine Martin and Devon Graye), are derailed when his mom dies and he’s forced to care for his senile father (Stuart Margolin) for a few days. But even that is short-lived, as his dad escapes to a nearby reenactment of Lewis and Clark’s journey, an adventure they’re forced to join in order to lure him back to reality.
First-time director Justin Schwarz hits the sweet spot with kids who can both roll their eyes at their dad’s advice but also admire him.
The premise sounds patently silly in synopsis form, but as it plays out on screen, it’s a heartfelt, genuine look at the inescapable nature of families. Although Lewis is estranged from his parents, the fact that he has dedicated a good portion of his life to documenting a part of something that means so much to them shows their influence on him.
Similarly, Zoe and Jack appear to have a good amount of respect for their dad even though they’re living out the strange and confusing life of kids with divorced parents.
First-time writer/director Justin Schwarz manages to hit the sweet spot of late teens/early 20s kids who can both roll their eyes at their dad’s advice but also admire his dedication to their well-being.
Schwarz also does well in his depiction of the Lewis and Clark re-enactors. He lightly mocks the ridiculousness of their pursuit, which includes dressing in period garb and using era-appropriate language, but also respects the individuals who choose to participate. Lewis, Zoe and Jack never act like they’re above any of the people in the camp, a key distinction in making the story work.
Dunne is one of those “that guy” actors, someone who elevates everything he’s in despite his less-than-superstar status. Here, he makes Lewis walk a fine line between likable and unlikable with his honest performance. Although Lewis is far from perfect, Dunne keeps him appealing by never overplaying any of his crucial moments.
Martin uses the same disaffected demeanor she did on Californication, but she makes it work for this character. Margolin, David Rasche, Dreama Walker and Cara Buono all help keep the story strong with their performances as well.
It’s unlikely many moviegoers will be all that interested in the particulars of Lewis and Clark, but The Discoverers keeps the history alive with a sweet, affecting story about the power of family.