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A coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old girl stuck on a road trip across the country with her family, “Arcadia” continually surprises with the depth and authenticities of its actors’ performances. Indie stalwart John Hawkes is here playing the dad, and he’s always good. What knocked me out about this drama was how terrific the kids were.
Excellent child acting is like that old Supreme Court justice’s description about obscenity: You know it when you see it. In this case, what marks the performances as being so spectacular is what you don’t see; you never catch them acting. “Arcadia” contains no false moments. These young actors are completely naturalistic and convincing.
Writer/director Olivia Silver, making her first feature film, shows a sure hand and a steady head in piloting this narrative through its twists and turns, long languid moments interspersed with familial turbulence.
This is one new filmmaker to watch — someone who intrinsically understands how to tell a story, when to reveal and when to pull back, when to punch the audience in the gut and when to let them find their own way.
As the story opens, Tom (Hawkes) is bundling his kids into a battered old station wagon to drive from New England to the eponymous Los Angeles suburb. He’s been out of work awhile and a terrific new job awaits him there — or so he says.
Greta, nicknamed Grizz, is a precocious 12, who still carries a stuffed rabbit named Harrison around with her but is clever enough to pierce through the prevarications and dissembling of those around her. Greta is played by Ryan Simpkins, who somewhat resembles a willowy young Carey Mulligan. She gives Greta an unaffected sort of grace — wide-eyed but stealthily smart.
Kendall Toole plays older sister Caroline, who’s a bit bossy and boy-obsessed but basically good of heart. Youngest is Nat, barely into school age, who hums along during the dreary parts of the trip on his father’s promise of a visit to the Grand Canyon along the way.
Tom is smiling and pleasant, cares about his kids, and speaks frequently about having the right values. But something clearly is off.
They drive along back country roads — never the interstate. Tom gets into a road-rage dispute that threatens to end their trip prematurely. He huffily makes the family leave a roadside diner when the waitress doesn’t show him the proper deference.
By the way, they share beds and cheap meals, so it’s clear there isn’t a lot of money. The station wagon groans on old shocks, and the engine squeals with frayed, slipping belts. Economically and emotionally, their family is on its last legs, even as Tom puts on the bravest face.
The biggest mystery surrounds their mother. Tom tells the children she will join them in California, but even little Nat doesn’t really buy it. There has been trouble between the parents in the past, and more appears to loom on the horizon. Tom is on the phone constantly but won’t let the kids talk to mom.
Has Tom abducted the children in a custody dispute? Are they getting divorced? Something is clearly not right, and young Greta grows increasingly resentful that she’s being kept out of the loop. Eventually, the shy quiet girl and the stern father will meet in a confrontation neither will enjoy.
“Arcadia” gets a little draggy from time to time, and even at a mere 90 minutes, the film feels like it could have used a round of aggressive editing to get it into fighting trim. But overall, this is a highly polished, professional-looking indie drama in which Ryan Simpkins and the other young cast members are truly a sight to behold.