The more LAURA (Vera Farmiga) tries to set boundaries in her life, the faster those lines are
crossed. Her 12-year-old son HENRY (Lewis MacDougall) is in trouble again at school. Her
own penchant for adopting stray dogs and cats threatens to overwhelm their Seattle home. And
her phone keeps ringing with calls she refuses to pick up—from her estranged father JACK
85-year-old Jack has crossed way too many lines himself. Despite his enduring charm, he’s being evicted from his senior community for unspecified misdeeds. After a lifetime of letdowns and betrayals, Laura wants nothing to do with him. But now, as an impoverished single mother, Laura needs help: Henry, who’s socially awkward and bullied, but sensitive, smart, and funny, has just been expelled. He has employed his considerable artistic talents to draw the school principal nude (and imaginatively posed—naked drawings are a specialty of Henry’s). Laura wants to get Henry into a private school where his creativity can be nurtured and his oddball tendencies tolerated, but she needs tuition money.
Laura reluctantly makes a deal with Jack: if he’ll help her pay for Henry’s school, she’ll rescue him from being turned out on the street and drive him south from Seattle to Los Angeles, where he will be taken in (reluctantly) by her sister JOJO (Kristen Schaal). Taking a leave from her job as the beleaguered personal assistant to a high-maintenance rich lady (Emily Holmes), and entrusting her menagerie of foundlings to a co-worker with a crush (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Laura hits the road with Jack and Henry in Jack’s elderly Rolls-Royce (Jack has long since lost his license).
Jack is an old hand at shamelessly manipulating and deceiving Laura. He quickly enlists Henry’s help in carrying out the side hustle he plans for the road trip: unloading his marijuana stash to clients along the coast without Laura catching on. Even though he loves his mom, Henry falls right into the job of assistant dealer with enthusiasm. Laura wants to bomb down to L.A. as quickly as possible, but their route meanders through rural countryside as they visit Jack’s old friends and associates. The warm and welcoming hippie household of STANLEY (Christopher Lloyd), an art forger, and his son JED (Halldor Bjarnason) thaws Laura’s heart a bit. Bikers, punks, farmers, and even the monks at a Buddhist monastery happily do business with Jack, abetted by Henry. On the one hand, Jack is teaching Henry to lie to his mother and break the law; on the other hand, he’s paying much-needed grandfatherly attention to a boy whose own father ditched the family years ago.
That feckless father, LEONARD (Bobby Cannavale) happens to be living along the road-trip trajectory in a Sausalito houseboat, and also happens to be one of Jack’s pot buyers. Motivated by Henry’s wish to reconnect with his missing father, but still unaware of the ongoing commerce, Laura agrees to stop by. Unsurprisingly, Leonard pretty much ignores Henry, but finagles his ex, Laura, into bed that night. The attraction is still there, and Laura falls for it—till the next morning, when she finds out he’s remarried. Jack chivalrously defends his daughter and grandson by popping Leonard in the nose, and Leonard counters by revealing what’s in the trunk of the car—the pot. Laura is livid.
Jack promises to ditch all the remaining stash with one more stop to pass it off to JOEY, a wealthy retired dealer. As Joey and Jack reminisce on glory days, Joey’s bucolic paradise is invaded by gun-toting, but bumbling, hold-up men who are swiftly scared off by Laura’s daring rescue. The slapstick-scary episode strengthens the growing bond that both Laura and Henry feel towards Jack.
On to L.A., where cheerily nutty JoJo, another animal lover, lives with a boyfriend and an assortment of pets in a teeny Hollywood bungalow which is clearly far too crowded to accommodate Jack as a live-in housemate. The family reunion is poignant, but nobody is really surprised when they wake up the next morning to find Jack vanished. Laura and JoJo have been through it all before, but it’s a painful loss to Henry, who has come to love his charismatic rogue of a grandfather.
Jack may not have said a proper goodbye, but he did leave a fat envelope of cash to pay for Henry’s art school. Settling back into their Seattle life after their epic road trip seems anticlimactic, till who should reappear at their door but—Jack, of course. The attachment to Henry and reconciliation with Laura are genuine and mutual. Maybe Jack will stick around. For Laura, the chance to accept, forgive, and heal will never go away.
In art as in life, no two road trips are the same—that’s what makes the classic journey the most
elastic of storytelling frames for comedy, tragedy, and all the stuff in between. BOUNDARIES,
writer/director SHANA FESTE’s unabashedly autobiographical portrait of her charming grifter
of a dad, takes the West Coast road trip places it’s never before been.
“My father is incredibly charismatic and is very much Jack,” reflects Feste, “but he was in and out of my life in my early childhood, and I think that deep down inside, I had a lot of anger towards him that I was never really able to express. This film gives that anger a voice.” Using that anger—and the healing that came in anger’s wake—was creative grist for Feste’s fourth, and most personal, feature film (prior films as writer/director include Country Strong and Endless Love).
“My father moved in with me when he became ill a few years ago. He recently passed away but I watched him form such a vital and unique bond with my son, who still talks about him daily. So, although our story has its own version of a happy ending, I felt it would be dishonest not to investigate the anger I had suppressed for so long. When you love someone so wholeheartedly, engaging in any kind of conflict is never easy. I was scared of it, and in turn my screen character, Laura, was scared as well.” Feste’s alter-ego Laura, forever attempting to set reasonable boundaries in her semi-chaotic life, is played by VERA FARMIGA.
Feste embraced the road trip as her canvas. She explains: “There’s a good reason the road trip is such an institution: The simple act of travel makes it clear that the journey is always the real destination.” (And the characters you meet along the way are never quite what they appear—that construction guy in the orange vest who cops weed from Jack, played by CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, is Feste’s father in a brief cameo.)
The deeply personal experience that is woven into the fabric of the film was mirrored by Feste’s writing process. She sought to make a film that stayed true to the emotions that served as its inspiration.
“Working on a studio film,” she relates, “there are a lot of voices in the process. On bigger films I’ve felt like my voice was disappearing; as much as I tried to maintain my voice, it was becoming clouded during the production. That’s a really scary place to be for a filmmaker, so I decided, this next film that I write, I’m going to write from the heart. It might be horrible, but it’s going to be “me,” and I’m going to stand behind every word on the page because it will be from my own truth.”
Feste’s real-life father-daughter story was as uniquely funny as it was infuriating. “An envelope full of cash appeared to pay for my first year of college, just like Jack pays for Henry’s art school with his pot money,” she recalls. “But there was no such money after the first year, so I had to drop out. If anything, real life was more outlandish than this story.” Finding the edge of comedy and genuine emotion was a revelation for Feste as a writer, having written and directed dramatic films to that point. That authenticity clicked with the actors who read the script.
“Comedy is about the hardest thing to write, especially for the screen,” reflects Christopher Plummer. “Human comedy is almost a lost art. I say almost, because about three years ago I received a movie script from Shana Feste, who with the sweep of her pen has revived that old art form to its liveliest and best. She’s given us a study of her own unsteady and dysfunctional family, which is not just hilariously funny, but remarkably moving and touching and heartwrenching.”
BRIAN KAVANAUGH-JONES (Midnight Special, Take Shelter, Insidious), who produced the film with CHRIS FERGUSON (Come and Find Me, Hollow in the Land, Afflicted), also happens to be married to Feste—so he witnessed the entire process unfold first hand. “What’s fun about this is she went and did some studio movies and then came back to something that is really true to her. The first draft isn’t that much different from what is now—she’s just continued to make it better and improve it, but it was so true the moment I read it on the page. It was great to see her get to share herself again in a story so clearly.”
The authentic personality of Feste’s own lived truth shines through from characters, plot, and setting, and especially in the often hilarious and poignant dialogue that drives it all. (An example: “You’re like the Pied Piper of mange.”)
As Plummer says, “She’s written it in a most unique style, but behind the brittle wordplay, there’s another life going on, a much deeper and more profound, unspoken life, a relentless search for harmony that must finally penetrate the surface. Shana is able to produce laughter and tears with equal and stunning force, and her actors are mighty blessed with the rich and eccentric characters she’s given them to play.”
Adds Feste: “All these characters are exaggerations of people that I know and love. Hard as it is to imagine, so much of what you see in the film has really happened to me—and because of that, the filmmaking process was very therapeutic.”