Film note: Love among the ‘Savages’

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While The Savages is certainly a film any audience can connect to, those with siblings will find Tamara Jenkins’s new work particularly resonant. Jenkins, who wrote and directed the film with great delicacy, showcases the multi-layered competitiveness siblings share after years of family drama and history.

Paul and Wendy Savage (beautifully played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) are quietly living their own lives—Paul’s a theater professor, and Wendy is a temp trying to get her own plays published. The years seem to have passed without much contact between them, and they both seem to be floundering, but their father’s sudden mental fall while living in an Arizona resort town (cue the past-their-prime golfers slowly passing by in golf carts) forces them to meet to meet for his care.

The Savages, a Fox Searchlight film written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Opening December 25 at the Edina Cinema.

When they learn that their father (Philip Bosco) can’t function on his own, they must take the dreaded step of finding a place of residence for him, knowing full well that neither of them is capable of opening his or her own home. It’s clear their upbringing was a cold one—even when Wendy thinks they’re doing very little in their father’s time of need, Paul directly remarks they are caring for their father now more than their father ever cared for them.

The dialogue in the film is crisp and to the point, and Jenkins is gaining recognition for crafting a screenplay with such honest dialogue. While both siblings’ hearts lie in the arts, Paul is the realist of the two. When the two are reunited and Wendy shows some emotion regarding their situation, Paul quips, “This isn’t therapy, Wendy…it’s real life.” (This is after he’s remained on his cell phone for a good 10 minutes after she’s arrived to meet him.) The Savages has been billed as a black comedy, and rightfully so: the film carries a terrific balance of gentle comedy and dark drama.

The two characters are lost in many ways, and with their father back in their lives (“Does he even know who we are? We didn’t even know where he was living,” Wendy realizes), they both are compelled to face their own issues with relationships and intimacy. Paul is letting a true love leave him, without even having put up much of a fight. Wendy has allowed herself to be “the other woman” in a relationship with a married man, clearly settling for any emotional and physical connection she can get.

But what happens over the course of the film is quite beautiful and simple: growth. By re-examining themselves, Paul and Wendy grow not just as individuals but also as siblings. By the end of the film, Paul and Wendy communicate with one another not as a family with the same baggage to share but rather as two adults with matching luggage. There’s a respect they’ve gained for one another through their shared journey.

In today’s world, the familial issue of taking care of one’s parents as adults is a tough one, as it causes the boundaries and lines of parent/child relationships to blur. The viewer of The Savages is left wondering, “What would I do in this situation? How does one explain to parents that they can no longer function on their own and that time is running out?” The Savages tackles this issue with grace and realism—due largely to Jenkins’s intimate, patient directing and to finely-tuned performances by Hoffman and Linney. Hoffman’s a recent Oscar winner (Best Actor, Capote) and Linney’s a two-time nominee; The Savages could be another shot at Oscars for both of them. The film provides the two actors a terrific opportunity to create characters that are layered and complex, yet believable. In the glut of award-worthy films now being released, The Savages is a fine, moving film that will find an audience of filmgoers who know all too well the emotions and private history shared only by brothers and sisters.

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