Jennifer Garner, Maika Monroe and Cody Fern star in the screen adaptation of Joy Nicholson’s 1997 coming-of-age novel, a family drama set amongst California surfers.
In many ways, The Tribes of Palos Verdes is standard YA fare: poisonous suburban milieu, troubled family dynamics and a misfit protagonist, intelligent and resilient. Two key elements lift the movie beyond formula, at least for most of its running time: the particulars of the Southern California setting, with its extreme natural beauty and extreme affluence, and the strength that the central character, played with quiet ferocity by Maika Monroe, finds through surfing.
Like the source novel, the film excels at mood and sense of place over plot. Directors Emmett and Brendan Malloy don’t give the story’s doomier contrivances their intended impact, even with strong performances — notably Jennifer Garner’s eye-opening starring turn, in a far darker key than she’s yet explored onscreen. But the sibling helmers know the terrain: They’re Los Angeles natives with surfing docs to their credit, and they convincingly make a teen girl’s awakening inseparable from her mastery of a board.
Premiering at the Hamptons International Film Festival and headed for theaters in late fall, the feature could click as a low-key alternative to glossier awards-season fare.
Monroe plays Medina, whose only friend is her twin brother, Jim (Aussie newcomer Cody Fern), though they couldn’t be more different: He’s popular and easygoing, while she prefers to observe from the sidelines, feeling especially alienated in their new community. With their hotshot cardiologist father, Phil (Justin Kirk), and increasingly unhinged mother, Sandy (Garner), they’ve relocated from Michigan to the coastal enclave of Palos Verdes, where streetlights, fast-food restaurants and apartment buildings are verboten.
It’s easy to sympathize with mouthy Sandy’s exasperated assessment of the judgmental, materialistic Stepford Wives (Elisabeth Röhm, Joely Fisher) who size her up at the country club. But, increasingly tormented by everything about P.V., including the sound of the crashing waves beneath their cliffside home, she retreats from the world, becoming pathologically dependent on Jim, especially after Phil announces that he’s leaving her for their real estate agent (Alicia Silverstone).
The directors and screenwriter Karen Croner are attuned to the different ways that Phil and Sandy selfishly draw their kids deeper into the domestic mess. Kirk nails the self-absorbed doctor’s tangle of parental sincerity, blindness and ineptitude, while Garner dives fearlessly into Sandy’s desperately needy and often humiliating self-destructiveness. The movie forgoes one key aspect of the character in the book — namely, her obsessive overeating and drastic weight gain — but in her ever-present bathrobe, and given to manic spending sprees, she’s clearly spiraling out of control, even as she grows more controlling of Jim and cruelly distant from Medina.
While her family falls apart, Medina takes to the waves every chance she gets, growing stronger and more adept every day. Doubles were used for the full-on surfing sequences, but Monroe, an accomplished freestyle kiteboarder, brings a natural athleticism to the part, as well as the preternatural clear-sightedness that makes Medina so appealing. She’s not intimidated by the Bay Boys, led by thirtysomething Chad (Milo Gibson), who aggressively control the local surfing scene, or by a world-traveling surf legend (Alex Knost) who washes up in Palos Verdes for a while. And she finds an unlikely soul mate in her father’s girlfriend’s son, Adrian (Noah Silver, effortlessly charming), who shares her hatred of the social-climbing locals.
Medina is the only one to see the urgency of her brother’s situation as he falls deeper into their mother’s damaged orbit, upping his self-medicating with a vengeance. Fern makes Jim’s dissolution heartbreakingly convincing, but the drama grows less powerful as it proceeds. Just as Joy Nicholson’s book doesn’t quite gather all its toughness and lyricism into a satisfying crescendo, Croner’s adaptation slips into predictable territory. The Malloys’ overreliance on close-ups, and on Medina’s story-framing voiceover narration, further undercuts the story’s power.
But there’s a wild beauty to more than match the narrative’s falters. Much as Medina is most at home on the ocean, the filmmaking is most fluent when filtered through the silver glitter of the surf. Contemporary but “eraless” (as Emmett Malloy has called it), the movie has a ’70s feel, from the muted palette of the production design and costumes to the sun-washed Pacific light, movingly captured in Giles Dunning’s camerawork. The undercurrent of foreboding in Gustavo Santaolalla’s gentle acoustic score is in sync with all the characters. But it’s Medina’s steady searching, against the flailing of almost everyone around her, that keeps this downbeat story afloat.
Production companies: The Firm, Houndstooth
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Maika Monroe, Cody Fern, Justin Kirk, Alicia Silverstone, Noah Silver, Elisabeth Röhm, Joely Fisher, Goran Visnjic, Alex Knost, Milo Gibson, Alex Neustaedter, Stevie Lynn Jones, Thomas Cocquerel
Directors: Emmett Malloy, Brendan Malloy
Screenwriter: Karen Croner, based on the novel by Joy Nicholson
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Karen Croner
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Gary Raskin, DJ Caruso, Ryan Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Hecktman, Charlie Dombek, Vernon Wells, Steven Matzkin, Adam Skomorowski, Gabriela Revilla Lugo, Jeff Kwatinetz, Kevin McKeon, Jennifer Gardner, Nicole King
Director of photography: Giles Dunning
Production designer: Stephanie Hass
Costume designer: Anette Cseri
Editors: Tracy Adams, Luis Caballar
Composer: Gustavo Santaolalla
Casting director: Rich Delia
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival (Spotlight)