Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
“If history is written by the winners, what happens to the rest of us?” That’s the enigmatic first line in The Discoverers, establishing, without hesitation, the nature of the incisive character study that’s about to wash over us.
Meet the Birches. Madeleine Martin is quirky Zoe, who turns 15 on the journey that's about to unfold, possessing an acerbic dry wit that helps put the polish on an already sharply literate script. Then there’s Devon Graye, whose 17-year-old Jack presents himself as the typical sullen, sensitive, emo teen – he barely utters a word as he quietly displays his artistic skills in the drawing pad he carries around. Indie icon Griffin Dunne is dad Lewis, a one-time brilliant history professor and budding author whose latest work on pioneer explorers Lewis & Clark has been adding pages like an out of control literary virus over the course of 20 years. Finally there’s the legendary character actor Stuart Margolin as Stanley, the once-proud grandfather whose personal crisis will bring the four together, an admittedly overused device that takes the audience in surprising directions. Every individual breaks type and defies convention as the narrative progresses – you think you know what’s coming, but…stay tuned.
This is the debut feature for writer/director/producer Justin Schwarz. It’s not easy being green but he’s ably assisted by a veteran production team to die for, beginning with award-winning director Gus Van Sant’s longtime camera operator Christopher Blauvelt as DP. Van Sant is at his best when capturing the raw authenticity of youth. With longtime cinematographer Harris Savides he helped establish a school of cinema verité filmmaking filled with long takes and tracking shots to advance a loose narrative from the kids' point of view. This seemingly simple technique, when used wisely, can be as beautiful and heartfelt as it is lovingly voyeuristic. Sadly, Savides passed away two years ago. But his legacy carries on with the camera operators he mentored. The Discoverers’ cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt is one of those, having worked for Van Sant and Savides on movies including the trilogy Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, as well as Paranoid Park and Restless. These films helped define my own visual sensibilities to this day. Blauvelt’s credits as a camera operator also include Lethal Weapon 3 and 4, Speed, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Zodiac, Where the Wild Things Are, and I’m Still Here. He was Director of Photography on Meek’s Cutoff and The Bling Ring, and shot a number of titles you’ll find among my film festival Top Picks over the years: the aforementioned Paranoid Park (Toronto 2007), Tom Ford's A Single Man (Toronto 2009), Goats and Nobody Walks (both from Sundance 2012), and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him (Toronto 2013). He won the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Cinematography for Low Down.
Van Sant and Savides’ influence on Blauvelt is undeniable in The Discoverers. Most of the story takes place outdoors, and he takes full advantage of the gorgeous exteriors provided by Chicago’s infamous skyline, Pennsylvania’s lush state parks, and the misty Oregon coastline. He has the uncanny ability to stretch The Golden Hour tenfold, and the long, pensive scenes that characterize much of the action are perfectly punctuated by shots of nature’s serenity surrounding the storm that is the Birch family.
Blauvelt’s vision is carried out in lockstep with editor Geraud Brisson, who worked on two of my guiltiest pleasures of the past 15 years, Jeepers Creepers I and II. He cut the upcoming Kristen Stewart-starrer Camp X-Ray, due for release in October. This is only the second feature for composer Aaron Mirman but the lilting original music is heartfelt and charming, unobtrusive yet affecting when needed.
Two-time Emmy winner Stuart Margolin proves once again why he’s one of the industry’s go-to character actors. In a role with limited dialogue, his body language and facial expressions are all he has to tell a painful story that pulls in the rest of the family at any cost, like a paternal black hole.
This was only the second feature in front of the camera for young Madeleine Martin, but she’s a television veteran with dozens of appearances to her credit, including 74 episodes of Californication (as Becca Moody) across eight years from 2007 to the present. After Dunne, she has the most lines in The Discoverers and deservedly so. This is the child who becomes mother to the man, blossoming in her womanhood as her father falls apart. She's a true delight.
Prior to this project, Devon Graye already had over two dozen films and TV shows on his resume. His arc is one of the most unexpected in The Discoverers, proving that not all teenage boys hate their sisters, are constantly rebellious, and care only about themselves. His sweet nature emerges slowly, going against type, in a performance that's refreshing and smile-inducing even in its limited scope.
Most of all, this is Griffin Dunne’s movie. The Oscar and Emmy-nominated star is a true unsung hero of the independent film world. As an actor, director, and producer, he has nearly 60 big screen projects to his credit and just as many movies, series episodes, and guest appearances on the small screen. He’s appeared in nearly 40 features, including An American Werewolf in London, My Girl, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Stuck on You, and Dallas Buyer Club. He won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film in 1986 as a producer of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, for which he also earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.
Dunne expanded on my radar in a 2006 low budget indie titled The Bondage. This is the film which essentially launched my career as a festival journalist. Starring Michael Angarano and Mae Whitman, the picture’s writer/director/producer Eric Allen Bell invited me to the world premiere at the 2006 SXSW Film Festival after seeing my writing about it online. That rich experience convinced me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life covering film festivals. I met Dunne just seven months later at the Woodstock Film Festival, where his picture Fierce People had a screening. He directed and produced that movie, which starred Kristen Stewart and Anton Yelchin. Just three months later I covered the world premiere of Snow Angels at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in which he had a pivotal role and which, ironically, also starred Michael Angarano of The Bondage. That film remains one of my favorites of the past 10 years.
Dunne’s performance here is a master class in expressing the broad range of emotions manifested by the classic “ordinary man in an extraordinary situation” scenario. The twist here is that he’s a bit off to begin with, a father whose teenage kids seem to have a firmer grip on the world than he does, with a father of his own who sanity seems beyond redemption. It’s a bottom-up progression that puts a fresh spin on a well-worn genre.
This gem of a dark comedy is the very definition of the sweet little American indie, filled with long takes and quiet moments, subdued colors, and a light guitar and piano-based score, with a healthy dose of first act development that demands some patience on the part of the viewer. Painful at times, joyous in others, we bear witness to one slightly dysfunctional family’s literal voyage of self-discovery, part coming of age drama and part intergenerational character study of a surprisingly charming teenage brother and sister, their on-the-verge-of-insanity father, and a grandfather who appears to be a lost cause. The journey to unite them is as torturous as the one taken by Lewis & Clark in the 1800s, but made worth it by a team of actors and filmmakers with the passion and talent to get it right.
The Discoverers was shot on location in Chicago and Oregon, with most of the film taking place in and around the Philadelphia area’s state parks. Filmed in late 2010, the movie debuted at the 2012 Hamptons International Film Festival and made its way through the festival circuit before release this year. It picked up several awards along the way, including three Stargazer Awards at New York’s prestigious Gen Art Film Festival in 2013 (Devon Graye for Emerging Actor, Madeleine Martin for Emerging Actress, and Aaron Mirman for Score), Best US/International Narrative Feature at the 2013 Kansas City FilmFest, Best Narrative Feature at Mississippi’s Oxford Film Festival in 2013, Achievement in Acting to Griffin Dunne at the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival, and the Director’s Choice Award for Outstanding Actor to Griffin Dunne at the 2013 Sedona Film Festival.
The movie has a running time of 1:44 and is being released unrated. Now playing in select cities through Quadratic Media.
The official trailer is below along with a set of stills and the official poster.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…