The waves of the Pacific Ocean can be mesmerizing, providing solace and peace and, for surfers, excitement — a welcome counterpoint to the noise of Southern California’s daily grind.
The Mason family seems to be looking for this sort peace when they move from Michigan to Palos Verdes, a wealthy enclave along the rocky coast south of Los Angeles. Instead, the isolation of their new neighborhood becomes a trap. The super bright sunlight provides a bleak backdrop for their fights, meltdowns, and epic arguments. The sound of the waves is not soothing but a deafening soundtrack to the gloom falling over the four characters.
Like the young-adult novel on which the film is based, the story is straightforward. Father Phil (a dark role by Justin Kirk) is a doctor and a jerk, to put it bluntly. His teenage kids struggle, but they quickly find an escape and a community on the beach. The boy, Jim, and his younger sister Medina turn into surfers, sticking together like lost puppies in a gloomy world.
What they need is a mother to hold the parts together. In a lesser film such a character might have become the loving, clichéd “glue.” Here, mother Sandy is a total mess and Jennifer Garner plays her with eye-opening depth. Battling mental anguish, Sandy relies on pills to stay afloat. As her husband betrays her with cold efficiency, she can barely make it through the day, let alone function as a mom.
While the family collapses in slow motion, this is ultimately a hopeful film. It’s true that Phil is ruthless, Sandy is drowning in the darkness of her mental illness, and Jim (an excellent role by Cody Fern) can barely hold on as his parents turn into character assassins. But Medina is a like a salmon bent on surviving, and surviving well. Played with gorgeous ferociousness by Maika Monroe, Medina is forced to swim upstream. With no one to rely on, she does so with intelligence and strength.
Now is quite a good time in Hollywood to witness a young woman take care of herself. Of course the pain of those around her affects her, but she will not let her ill mother, absent father, or struggling brother determine her fate. She chooses kindness and grace, she chooses life. She knows her life matters, even if no one is affirming that simple, profound fact.
In the ocean she can escape, catching waves, drifting aimlessly, watching sunsets. These scenes are magnificent. You need not be a surfer, swimmer, or Southern Californian to appreciate the excellently photographed landscape that is her haven. Monroe, an accomplished kitesurfer from Santa Barbara, appears in many of these shots herself, and the water scenes are some of best ever in a surf movie.
Karen Croner’s screenplay was directed by Emmett and Brendan Malloy. The brothers’ strong style reflects their documentaries on surfing and snowboarding, their commercials — they made the brilliant Cleveland commercial for Nike — and the book on which the film is based.
The key supporting role of Sandy is obviously not a hopeful one, but Garner’s performance is. Post-Ben Affleck, the excellent actress known from Juno and Dallas Buyer’s Club is returning with a vengeance. It takes guts to play a woman humiliated, after what Garner herself has gone through. She grabs this role by the throat and slays it, as the surfers on the beach below the Mason home might call it.
In a way Garner’s work compliments the arc of Medina’s story. Both the fictional girl and the real woman have risked falling victim to useless men. But they firmly reject victimhood. In the film, the surfer girl shows how it is done. In Hollywood, Garner does the same with this fierce little film, which deserves all the attention it can get.
The Tribes of Palos Verdes (rated R) opens Friday December 1 in limited release. The movie will be available on streaming platforms the same date.