Movie Review: “The Tribes of Palos Verdes”

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They moved there to pursue her dad’s dream, to be a rich cardiologist serving the wealthy of California.

“I always said we’d move to paradise,” he reassured the family. And look where they ended up — in seaside Palos Verdes, in a clifftop mansion overlooking the Pacific surf.

But there was trouble before they arrived in paradise, our teen narrator, Medina (Maika Monroe of “It Follows”) tells us. She was 16 and “already in trouble in school.” She’s entirely too attached to her more sociable twin brother  Jim (Cody Fern).

They need to find their place here. That title, “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” suggests where that place is.

And Mom (Jennifer Garner)? She’s so thrown off-balance by this adjustment from heartland Michigan to a rich, rigid “ladies who lunch” world that we know that keeping her on an even keel should have been a family priority all along. Not that her flirtatious, follow-his-bliss husband (Justin Kirk of “Weeds”) cares about that.

This setting and set-up, based on a Karen Croner (“Admission,””One True Thing”) script, plays like “Big Little Lies Lite,” a more narrowly-focused coastal Cali melodrama about a family in crisis, a disaster waiting to happen.

In the Monterrey-set TV show “Lies,” there’s rivalry, social striving, painful personal history and eventually murder to sort out. Here, we wonder who will snap first and who will fall the furthest.

That could be literal, as music video directors turned feature filmmakers Brendan and Emmett Malloy treat us to ominous shots looking down those cliffs to the ever-pounding sea.

But in a metaphoric sense, it is the mother we fear for, and fear. Garner delivers one of her finest performances as a manic depressive with “black hole moods” on her bad days. She taps into something deep and dark in playing a broken, brittle woman whose paranoia about her roaming husband and the isolation he’s hurled her into is well-placed. Sandy veers between conciliatory and unhinged, and their epic fights — at home and in public — rattle their kids, and us.

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Thank heavens those kids have discovered surfing, figured out how to keep the peace with the beach bullies The Bay Boys (Mel Gibson’s kid plays one of them). It’s the other things this world exposes them to that could be the bigger threats. Medina’s sexual awakening is not on the safest ground with this macho-infantile crowd. And Jim seems like just the sort of guy who’d enjoy more than just flirting with recreational drugs.

The Malloys keep the focus and the camera in close on Medina’s journey, and Monroe, a hardcore kite surfer, doesn’t just do her own surfing here. She commands our attention, and not just because the Malloys come oh-so-close to objectifying her. She’s paying attention, as teen narrators must do. And we pay attention to her paying attention.

The connection between the twins is discussed but never understood by the twins themselves. Part of this is the film’s myopic Medina point-of-view, but mostly it’s due to the melodramatic plot threads that pile up in the later acts.

With Dad’s new “love” (Alicia Silverstone) and that new love’s attractive son (Noah Silver), there’s more trouble in paradise in store.

All of which leaves the sibling connection under-explained and the picture’s pursuit of “tribes” incomplete. There’s a compactness to it all that I appreciate (“Big Little Lies” had more incidents, but like all limited-run cable series, the story slowly drips out like molasses in winter). But the story and story arc here are truncated and can leave the viewer still-interested if slightly dissatisfied when all is said and done.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating:

Cast: Maika Monroe, Cody Fern Jennifer Garner, Justin Kirk, Alicia Silversone

Credits:Directed by, script by . An IFC release.

Running time: 1:43

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