By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Discoveries and rediscoveries abound in The Discoverers. Some are made by the characters in this bittersweet comedy, some by us.
Let’s start with us.
On the surface, The Discoverers is yet another dysfunctional-family flick. But it feels so freshly observed, it seems highly original.
And the most prominent elements that we viewers rediscover and discover are the splendid talents of an underappreciated actor and a new-to-the-neighborhood actress.
The character actor is Griffin Dunne, a veteran of sixty-some movies whose most recent supporting role was as the disgraced alternative medicine doctor in Dallas Buyers Club and whose showiest starring vehicle was the lead in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 comedy, After Hours.
The young actress matching him every step of the way is Madeleine Martin, most of whose credits so far are in television.
They play kindred-spirit father and daughter in The Discoverers, providing the film with a sturdy emotional spine, and are both superb.
This is a modestly budgeted (and Kickstarter kickstarted) independent film that looks at family as a doubled-edge sword; that is, as the source of folks’ strengths as well as the reason for their weaknesses.
Dunne plays Lewis Birch, a part-time history professor at a non-accredited Chicago community college (representing a severe academic fall from grace after the early promise he showed at a loftier university) who is working on a massive book (6,000 pages!) from which he has been invited to present some of his research findings at an upcoming conference in Portland, Ore.
Lewis has decided to use a road trip to the conference as an opportunity to bond with his two moody teenagers, 15-year-old Zoe (Ms. Martin) and 17-year-old Jack (Devon Graye) while his ex-wife honeymoons.
But then he receives word that his mother has passed away.
So, even though he has long been estranged from his parents, he and the kids head for his childhood home in Idaho, where they encounter Lewis’s father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), a grandfather Zoe and Jack don’t even know.
But Stanley, now a widower, is in a catatonic state.
And as soon as we meet Stanley (between Lewis and whom there is no love lost or found), we realize that Lewis’ academic life’s work involves writing a revisionist history book that refutes all the historical “facts” that his Lewis-and-Clark-obsessed father believes in.
Stanley is a father, after all, who named Lewis and his brother for Lewis and Clark, and who participates in a historical reënactment hike of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, every year.
Including this year, which is why Lewis and the kids discover themselves accompanying the grieving patriarch on the trek westward in period costumes, leaving their 21st-century devices and conveniences behind as they look after Stanley while reënacting the momentous 1804 expedition.
First-time writer-director Justin Schwarz takes a chance but gets by with his slightly convoluted premise, and he rights the ship by lending his low-key, character-driven piece abundant humor and pathos as the characters discover things not only about the early American explorers but insights about themselves and each other.
Dunne gives his lived-in protagonist an endearing, sad-sack charm as he struggles to control his frustration and maintain a measure of self-respect, while Martin’s dry, deadpan delivery of her witty, compassionately cynical lines as the vegan feminist truth-teller seems to announce the arrival of a wonderfully idiosyncratic comic player.
It’s the indelible twosome created by Dunne and Martin who contribute the edge and the heart that the understated journey needs to make us want to walk alongside it.
So we’ll reënact 3 stars out of 4. The Discoverers is a delightful discovery.