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Arcadia | DVD Review

Inspired by a personal memory of writer and director Olivia Silver, her feature debut wistfully recalls the formative period between childhood simplicity and the painful awareness of adulthood. With redeeming moments of incredible warmth, Arcadia won Crystal Bear at Berlin Int’l Film Festival and Official Selection at Sarasota Film Festival, but tells the ultimately uninventive story of a family journeying 3,000 miles in an old station wagon to their new California home.

The grueling road trip, absent mother and flawed father may bring to mind, purposefully or otherwise, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Much like Harry Dean Stanton’s perfectly lined face, Academy Award nominee John Hawkes has a weathered look of experience – but drawing such a comparison to Paris, Texas’ profoundly enigmatic Travis only underlines the impenetrable surface and unexacting characterization in Arcadia. Rather than challenging expectations of paternity or embracing vulnerability, Tom is carefully rendered as the too-perfect balance of good intentions and irrational anger. Incapable of retaining composure under the mounting pressure of unexceptional stressors (a failed marriage, difficult pre-teen and six-month stint of unemployment) his disgraceful outbursts fail to inspire empathy.

With sun washed colors and super 16mm film, the cinematography of Eric Lin at times resembles a home-video of intimate familial exchanges. Endowed with the subjective camera expected of a traditional coming of age story, perspective is granted to a contemplative 12-year-old. In a succession of events, Greta (Ryan Simpkins) develops her first unattainable crush, embarrassing blemish, learns to shave her legs and frantically attempts to hide the messy evidence of menstruation. This rapid fire presentation of every milestone symptomatic of puberty is noticeably forced. Yet these experiences typical of a Judy Blume character are fortunately limited to a single sequence, allowing the remainder of Arcadia to focus on more complex uncertainties of adolescence.

The youngest brother Nat (Ty Simpkins) is blamelessly trusting of increasingly transparent empty promises, while teenaged Caroline (Kendall Toole) is mostly worried about the boyfriend she left behind. Greta is alone in her justified state of confusion, while this certain disconnect makes displays of affection between the siblings even more endearing. Also commendable is the faithful conception of the bittersweet experience of travel. Beyond the loveliness of passing trees and blurred pavement, there is collective sadness to the shoddy motel, predatory gas station attendant and unfriendly diner waitress. In a similar sense, the film begins with an old baseball that lands near a pair of dirty slippers and a stray cigarette butt, creating an unexpected still life to immediately evoke some polluted all-American dream. Despite the promise of disillusionment, Arcadia ends with symbolic reconciliation and unfortunately clings to digestible idealism.

Disc Review

Inside the disc packaging you will find a concise statement on why Arcadia was selected for distribution, along with a revealing excerpt from an interview with the director.

Special features include bios, a section on Film Movement and trailers from their catalog. Aside from providing insight on what Film Movement is about, each monthly disc contains an acclaimed short film. Little Canyon is the bonus short paired with Arcadia – Olivia Silver’s thesis film at UCLA which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. This 20 minute film is the basis for Arcadia, but Little Canyon is hardly a rough draft. Except for the decisive casting of John Hawkes, the feature film is an extension rather than a revision of Little Canyon. The inclusion of the endearing original project reveals the origins of Arcadia, but a sequential viewing feels painfully redundant.

Final Thoughts

Extras on the disc are relatively underwhelming, but the DVD release will certainly extend accessibility of the truly independent film to an otherwise untouched audience. Images of the inherently striking American Southwest landscape are worthy of a large-scale projection, but a home viewing is fitting as Arcadia is best at moments of delicate domesticity.

Caitlin Coder is a film critic/journalist for She has an English BA and Film Studies BA from The University at Buffalo. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardenne Bros. (The Kid With a Bike), Haneke (Caché), Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love), Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Tarantino (Jackie Brown), Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy), von Trier (Melancholia), Malick (The Thin Red Line).

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