I suppose one could characterize "Fierce People" as a coming-of-age drama. But it also has elements of comedy and tragedy, as well as mystery. And a bit of farce thrown in. In short, real life. That makes it hard to pigeonhole, which puts it more into the category of an indie as opposed to a Hollywood movie. But its high production values, big budget feel, and star caliber cast seem at odds with the indie label. So let's call it a hybrid. And, perhaps, that's why it's been "lost." It defies categorization.
Meet Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin), 15, whose father is absent. In fact, Finn has never known him. But he sees him and hears him via the collection of home movies sent from South America. Dad is a renowned anthropologist, and has made a name for himself by setting up shop with the Yanomani, the tribe of "Fierce People" who live to kill and, well, procreate. All their activities are built around those two "tasks," and Finn is captivated by it. Mom Liz (Diane Lane) is also somewhat absent. Although present physically, she is lost in a world of cocaine and alcohol. So Finn becomes an adult in his little solitary world with his reels of film.
One summer, Mom decides to drag Finn along with her into the wilds of New Jersey. A massage therapist, Mom has catered to a wealthy client, Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland, in a tour de force performance) and he has invited her for an extended house call at his palatial estate. Osborne's "tribe" includes an assortment of eccentric rich kids, servants, and village idiots among whom Finn will find himself part of his own anthropological study. Will his experience with Dad's films help him survive life as a visitor to this tribe? Will he be accepted? Or will he be seen as an outsider, concurrently struggling with his own identity as an adolescent? Such is the stuff of fairy tales, and I suppose this would be if not for the dark underbelly which director Griffin Dunne and writer Dirk Wittenborn have infused into this magnificent story.
With Anton Yelchin's voice-over, intercutting pieces of Dad's home movies, Finn must learn to go back to being the teenager he never really had a chance to be, stop being the parent to his Mom, allow newly-sober Mom to be parent to him, and learn responsibility on the way to adulthood the way it should have taken place all along. Yet he needs to make this transformation in a dangerous, dark world where playing with fire is folly to this fractured family.
This is, first and foremost, a story-driven film and Griffin Dunne emphasized as much in the intro to the film. He bought the rights to Wittenborn's novel even as it was being written, and Wittenborn's own screenplay comes to life in the hands of the masterful Dunne in a way that's a work of wonder.
This is also largely a character-driven film, and Sutherland has never been better. His star turn as Osborne stunned those around me and will likely leave you amazed as well. Diane Lane's character ultimately exhibits so many personalities that it's hard to imagine another actor pulling it off so well. She is breathtaking. But more than anything, "Fierce People" is Anton Yelchin's film. He has a long resume as a child actor but preciously little as a teen. Other than the little-known "House of D" (also a gem), he is best known as Byrd on TV's "Huff." In January, he will be seen in "Alpha Dog" (also sitting on the shelf since 2004, a film I saw at Sundance this year and in which he is the "heart and soul"). His performance here goes far beyond what one would expect from someone so young, and is nothing short of spectacular.
This complex, quirky film has remained out of sight long enough. "Fierce People" is a treasure filled with light and shadow, comedy and tragedy, joy and pathos, but mostly wonder.