Fierce People
Kristen Stewart and Anton Yelchin

USA, 2005. Rated R. 107 minutes.

Cast: Diane Lane, Anton Yelchin, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, Elizabeth Perkins, Paz de la Huerta, Blu Mankuma, Christopher Shyer, Garry Chalk
Writer: Dirk Wittenborn, based on his novel
Original Music: none
Cinematography: William Rexer
Producer: Nick Wechsler, Griffin Dunne
Director: Griffin Dunne


Grade: D Review by Carlo Cavagna

There are directors with an instinct for making difficult subject matter funny. There are directors with an affinity for the more bizarre extremes of human behavior. There are directors with limitless imaginations capable of breathtaking flights of cinematic fancy. Griffin Dunne is not one of those directors.

Dunne tries to tell unconventional stories about unconventional people, but he has no idea what unconventionality is. Think of his films—Addicted to Love , whose idea of counterculture is Meg Ryan in black eyeshadow; Practical Magic, another in the endless series of soulless, condescending films about wacky Southerners; and Lisa Picard is Famous, a toothless mockumentary. Dunne's idea of eccentricity in Fierce People is “a retard” who draws pornographic petroglyphs in the forest.

Fierce people in Fierce People
Top left: Kristen Stewart and Anton Yelchin star in Fierce People. Above: A ponderous anthropological analogy.

Fierce People concerns a kid with stunningly bad hair named Finn (Anton Yelchin). His mother is Diane Lane. His father is “the Elvis of anthropology,” and Finn knows him only through dozens of documentary reels. At the beginning of the film, Finn is caught buying cocaine for his junkie mom, and so prevented from accepting his father's invitation to spend the summer in the Amazon rainforest. Instead, his mother spirits them away from the city, and they spend the summer of 1980 among “the Fierce People of deepest, darkest Vlyvalle, New Jersey.”

Apparently this affluent community is exactly like a primitive South American tribe. Human instinct being the same no matter the context, this may not come across as a penetrating observation, but for Dunne, it's enough of an excuse to throw in dozens of imagined sequences with young Finn and a bunch of extras wearing tribal costumes, face paint, and headdresses. And then he throws in a few more.

Thus Dunne weighs down a light social satire with a ponderous anthropological analogy, and burdens it even more with the real-world presence of the mentally disabled kid with the dirty chalk murals and the maid's psychopath boyfriend, who runs around trying to shoot people with a bow. Meanwhile, there's no overarching conflict in evidence. Dunne hopes you won't notice because the characters are so interesting, except they're not. Listening to community patriarch Ogden Osborne (Donald Sutherland) reminisce pointlessly about some showgirl named Creamsickle with a mole the shape of Cuba doesn't qualify as interesting.

Finally, halfway through the film, you get the first hints of real conflict when a character observes that Finn and his mother are just toys to people like Osborne's grandchildren Maya (Kirsten Stewart of Panic Room) and Bryce (Chris Evans of The Fantastic Four). Unfortunately, the film then hammers home the point in a jarringly atonal turn of events so at odds with the rest of the film that it makes Oliver Stone look like a master of subtle nuance.

It's not that Fierce People couldn't have been an engaging film. It's that almost every decision Dunne makes is wrong, and he lacks the finesse to make his disparate elements cohere. Fierce People leaves you with the unshakeable feeling that the story would have been far more interesting if Finn had in fact gone to South America instead of spending the summer with these polo-playing poseurs. The road not traveled is the road you wish had been.

[Read the AboutFilm intereview with Griffin Dunne]

Review © May 2006 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2006 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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