Review of Boundaries (SXSW 2018)
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.
A great name for this narrative feature, but perhaps the film could have just as accurately been titled No Boundaries. Laura (Vera Farmiga) is a divorced mother who is forced to drive her 85-year-old dad (Christopher Plummer) across the country so he can live with her sister. This duty is a major disruption since Jack has been kicked out of the nursing home for selling drugs. Along for the ride are a number of rescued pets—their loyalty and cuteness serve as a counterpoint to the flawed human characters.
Not surprisingly, the family ties in this film are quite frayed. After their mother died, the two young girls were often left alone to fend for themselves. Now Laura must deal with her resentment and suppressed anger towards her father. Perhaps as a result of a damaged childhood, Laura’s relationships with men are strained. She seems to attract the wrong breed.
Meanwhile, Laura’s son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) is growing up with unhealthy habits and attitudes, which suggest a continued cycle of dysfunction for the family. It does not help when the grandfather recruits his grandson (Jack cannot even remember his name), to help him sell drugs on their meandering trip out west. The film is good at raising the question: who or what can break the cycle?
One predominant theme is the need for proper boundaries, a most challenging problem for a postmodern society that values independence and self-worth over commitment and sacrifice. The problem is not so much that the boundary lines are drawn too tight, but that no boundary is found at all. One may wonder if we have come to the end of the pendulum swing of all these revolutions celebrating unlimited sex and unlimited drug trips. There is one moment where the Buddhist Jack punches someone who had threatened their wellbeing (apparently crossing a boundary). He explains his violence away saying that he has suddenly become right-wing Christian. That got a big laugh from the audience at SXSW, but one wonders if only fundamentalists are prepared to practice proper boundary management these days.
The film’s other dominating theme is rescue. Laura is a compulsive pet rescuer—the pets even share her bed and, as you might imagine, they interfere with her human relationships. She has a special affinity for the broken and rejected animals she stumbles across along the journey (at times, they seem to find her). She is the “pied piper of mange.” The metaphor of innocent pets, these which are alone and desperate for care, is placed in parallel with the abandoned and wounded humans who seem to be victims of circumstances. Like a rejected animal in need of unconditional love, Laura is in need of rescue.
Stopping short of a spoiler, the film plot hints at identifying who her redeemer might be, and so it provides no real surprise how she is finally rescued. Unfortunately, one criticism is that this redemption is not portrayed with much depth or detail—it seems almost improbable, as her redeemer’s character is woefully underdeveloped. One is left to speculate what boundaries Laura will honor as she moves on.