By Don Simpson | November 14, 2012
Director: Justin Schwarz
Writer: Justin Schwarz
Starring: Griffin Dunne, Cara Buono, Madeleine Martin, Devon Graye, Dreama Walker, David Rasche, Stuart Margolin, Ann Dowd, Becky Ann Baker, Ato Essandoh, John C. McGinley, Marceline Hugot, Todd Susman
Lewis (Griffin Dunne) is a history professor at a community college who has been existing at unfathomable depths below his potential for many years. We can only assume that Lewis is stuck in this demeaning position for one of two reasons: lack of confidence or to focus on his magnum opus, an exhaustive 6,000+ page book on William Clark’s slave, York. Well, Lewis is about to finally get his big break. With a promising publishing deal — albeit with a podunk academic press — in the works, Lewis has been invited to present his research on York at a conference in Portland, Oregon.
So, Lewis commences his cross-country drive to Portland with his two teenage kids — Zoe (Madeleine Martin) and Jack (Devon Graye) — slouched, unwillingly in his backseat. Divorced, Lewis sees this road trip as an opportunity to bond with his estranged children; at the very least, he figures they will appreciate seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Their trip is unexpectedly detoured to Lewis’ childhood home in Idaho home, where Lewis discovers his mother dead and his father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), in a catatonic state of shock. Lewis had cut off all ties to his parents long ago, but now he is stuck caring for Stanley, whom he hates (and the feeling is mutual).
We soon learn why Lewis has worked so long on a revisionist history book about the Corps of Discovery — to spite Stanley, who participates in a historical reenactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition on a yearly basis. Without warning, Stanley disappears only to be found reprising his role as Captain Clark; the familiarity and comfort associated with the annual Discovery Trek snaps Stanley out of his catatonic state, thus revealing the tyrannical personality that Lewis wholeheartedly detests. And, as if stuck in a childhood nightmare, Lewis finds himself donning historically accurate garb once again, this time with Zoe and Jack reluctantly at his side. Despite having their modern accoutrements confiscated, at least Lewis finds a kindred spirit in his precocious, vegan daughter who has developed her own revisionist/feminist perspective on history.
Writer-director Justin Schwarz’s The Discoverers features an incredibly intelligent script that forces its characters to confront their own theories of history, both personal and national. Specifically, Lewis must reexamine his own personal history, while also immersing himself in a reenactment of the events he has been researching for so long. As a historian, Lewis has a very complicated relationship with history. The writing of his historical non-fiction book is a purposeful rebellion against his father’s view on history; all the while, Lewis has avoided his own personal history, despite burying his head in early 19th century U.S. history. Schwarz smartly utilizes the story of York as an analogy for Lewis’ role during the Discovery Trek, both as a child and now as an adult; Schwarz also uses Merriweather Lewis’ inability to have his writings about the Corps of Discovery expedition published during his lifetime as a parallel for Lewis’ current academic stagnation.
It is the smartness of the writing that escalates The Discoverers above the recent barrage of familial reconciliation stories that have appeared in the wake of Little Miss Sunshine. The core family element — Lewis, Stanley, Zoe and Jack — all fit nicely into the mold of characters in this sub-genre, at least on the surface. Lewis and Zoe are the two characters who definitely go above and beyond their contemporaries; and it is great to see these two character types (precocious daughter, schlubby everyman father) get a lot more depth and range for once. They walk away with the wittiest and smartest dialogue of the film, while everyone else’s dialogue seems to be written at a much lower grade level. (Call it urban intellectual elitism if you really want to, but the non-intellectuals are definitely the lessers of this story.) We can chalk this up to The Discoverers being written from the sardonic perspective of Lewis, as everyone but Zoe and Lewis’ possible love interest Nell (Cara Buono) come off as cartoonish/buffoonish replications of real people. Even the most negative reviews of The Discoverers cannot avoid mentioning Griffin Dunne’s astounding performance and I think Madeleine Martin matches him step-for-step — both actors truly embody their characters and nail their tone with absolute perfection.