Now Streaming: The Tribes of Palos Verdes

Based on the acclaimed 1997 novel, Emmett and Brendan Malloy's The Tribes of Palos Verdes is a complicated animal.  On the surface, it is everything one would expect from an independent film.  It is remarkably shot, features a quartet of strong performances, and its subject matter of familial discord is tried and true within the drama genre.  However, as the narrative cascades towards inevitability, the bleak presentation outstays its welcome, leaving behind a predictable and unrelentingly cold experience.  

Free spirited teenager Medina and her family have moved to the affluent neighborhood of Palos Verdes.  When her father leaves her mother for another woman, Medina, her twin brother, and her mother all seek solace in various activities and relationships; some of which have devastating consequences.  Karen Croner's screenplay has an ethereal quality that uses voiceover narrations from Medina to set the stage.  The language during these sequences is dreamy to the point of detachment.  The dialogue has a strange rhythm in which the players communicate in exaggerated, even painful gestures and tones, a reflection of the pain roiling underneath their pitch perfect veneer.  While the lack of subtlety is a detriment, the cast is more than capable of working around it whenever they’re given the chance to breathe…which isn’t often.  

Maika Monroe (It Follows) stars as Medina.  Her performance is one of the film's strongest attributes, but even here, she feels stifled by the arm's length direction.  At its core, Tribes is an almost anthropological experience, observing the characters, but never going beyond what is seen.  Monroe does well with the material, presenting Medina as a strong willed young woman who refuses to back down. Her chemistry with Cody Fern, who plays her twin brother Jim, is the centerpiece, as their relationship forms the central arc.  Fern is the weakest of the leads, however, his embodiment of yet another youth in distress adequately addresses the issues on display.  Justin Kirk (Weeds) portrays the absent patriarch, however any strength he brings to the role is dwarfed by Jennifer Garner's maniacal performance.  Her turn as a mother whose mental stability is rapidly eroding pairs perfectly with the overall conflicted tone.  In one instance, she is able to garner sympathy from the audience and in the next, ire.  The problem is that it simply doesn't work.  There's not enough to root for and not enough to disdain and the result leaves everything in a place of mediocrity.  

Giles Dunning's cinematography is easily the strongest element.  There are sequences involving characters surfing that are sensational, framing beautiful beaches and pristine waves in natural light while still managing to maintain the film's color-drained palette.  It's clear from the shot compositions that the directors have vision, the issue is in the retreaded subject matter and how everything wallows in despair while characters dispense fortune cookie reflections on their predicaments.  Even Monroe's narration becomes tiresome and expected.  

Available now for digital rental, The Tribes of Palos Verdes is a conflicted film whose melancholic presentation never matures into anything memorable.  While there are a handful of powerful performances and some interesting visuals, the film is yet another addition to the film pantheon of well-to-do socialites self-imploding inside their ivory towers. 

-- Kyle Jonathan