At almost every film festival, there are one or two films I go into really hoping I'll like them, and on truly fortuitous occasions, my hope and the hype both live up to expectations. One of those films at this year's Sundance was The Savages, starring Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. You'd have to try pretty damn hard to mess up with actors of that caliber bookending your film, and fortunately, with writer/director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, which I've always loved) at the helm, it's smooth sailing. Wendy and Jon Savage (Linney and Hoffman, respectively) are siblings who together survived a tumultuous and abusive childhood. They've long been estranged from their mother, who abandoned the family, and their father, who, we gather, was not the warmest or most nurturing of paternal figures. Needless to say, neither sibling survived childhood emotionally intact.
Wendy, at age 39, has only a cat, a ficus, and an occasional romp in the sack with a married man to keep her company in her tiny New York City apartment. Jon, at 42, is in the midst of ending his long-term relationship with his Polish girlfriend because her visa has expired and he just can't make that commitment to marriage. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, and Jon a professor of drama working on a book on Bertolt Becht. When dad Lenny's girlfriend of 20 years dies suddenly, Jon and Wendy fly to Sun City to assess the situation; they quickly learn that their dad had the non-marital version of a pre-nup with Doris, his lady friend, and he is being unceremoniously booted out of his home by his Doris' kids, who want to sell the house to the next soon-to-be-dying client. Thus, Jon and Wendy end up in the unenviable position of having to care for the father who never cared for them. What I loved about this film was all the little things that ring true to anyone who has dealt with an aging parent or grandparent: the desperately guilty search for a "good" nursing home, the only semi-effective attempts at turning a sterile nursing home space into a cozy home, the awkward conversations with an aging parent about things like comas, life support and funeral plans. Jenkins steers well clear of melodrama here as well; rather than bombarding us with images of a horrific childhood, she only gives the tiniest of glances. She also avoids making Lenny into the bad guy. Regardless of the past, Wendy is determined to take care of her dying father, with or without her brother, and Jenkins humanizes Lenny enough to make that believable.
Hoffman and Linney are both outstanding in this film, as you might expect, and Hoffman has a particularly impassioned speech about nursing homes as places where people are waiting to die. Philip Bosco is also great as the Savage siblings' father, Lenny. The script is taut and honest, the dialogue sharp and witty, and the performances spot-on. There are no easy answers in dealing with aging and dying parents, and Jenkins doesn't try to give us one; she simply takes us into the story of her fascinating characters, and the integrity with which she handles it makes it ring true throughout.