And When Did YOu Last See Your Father

Starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Running Time: 114 mins
Rated: Rated M (moderate themes, infrequent moderate coarse language)
It is a pity that the ironic overtones of the name of the focus family, The Savages, indicates more of a barbarity than they actually display. Lenny Savage, the ageing father slipping into dementia, has acted in savage ways towards his children when they were growing up and has become a cantankerous old man who taunts his (not always kindly) carer by smearing insults on the bathroom wall with his excrement. But, his two children, who have to face up to the reality of his condition and their filial responsibilities, are by no means savage. In many ways, they treat him far better than he deserves.

We are introduced to the two Savages. Wendy is late 30s, unmarried, living in New York City, a would-be playwright (about her childhood), a temp who keeps applying for literary grants and who is having an affair with a married neighbour. John, on the other hand, is early 40s, a theatre professor in Buaffalo writing on Brecht, living with a Polish woman who is about to be deported. As played by Laura Linney (receiving an Oscar nomination) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, they are well-delineated characters whom the audience gets to know very well indeed. Philip Bosco is excellent as the obstreperous father.

The film is about middle-aged children coping with their father's decline, the problems of moving him into a care institution, how to overcome their past hostilities, spending time with their father while coping with their own problems. Many people face these issues every day and deal with them with common sense and commitment. Americans tend to overdramatise the ordinary, making such situations more sensational than they are actually are. Wendy and John behave melodramatically at times. Wendy is moved by feelings and equates responsibility with guilt feelings. John, on the other hand, is more practical, thinks things through and acts decisively.

However, there are many powerful scenes as the children communicate with their father and he slips in and out of reality. Wendy is fortunate in the support she receives from a Nigerian born carer who works well with the father. The experience with their father and with each other brings Wendy and John to some kind of mid-life peace.

With the two leads, there is quite an amount of verbal sparring, some of which is cleverly humorous. There is also soul-searching and facing the true self which is cleverly serious. Audiences who have experienced similar situations will resonate with the issues.

Village Roadshow Out July 24

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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