The town of Woodstock, New York, as presented in Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, is both a living anachronism and a magical place where long-simmering familial differences can be dissolved in a vibe of good feelings. It’s a hotbed of unexpected culture where even the hunky, level-headed butcher can quote Whitman and a place where aging hippies continue their free-loving, moon-worshipping ways for the viewer’s amusement. This mixed attitude toward the film’s central town (object of gentle ridicule, wondrous retreat) is at the heart of the problems that plague Bruce Beresford’s film, which otherwise unfolds as a fairly ordinary three-generational family drama.
When Manhattan attorney Diane’s (Catherine Keener) husband asks her for a divorce, she whisks her kids off to Woodstock to visit her estranged mother, Grace (Jane Fonda). In contrast to the cold, modern architecture that represents the few glimpses we see of New York City, the family’s new destination is sunny and warm, Grace’s house lovingly cluttered. Diane, always on edge, represents the film’s view of Manhattan, while her yuppie lifestyle and conservative politics are understood as a backlash against her mother. But if Diane correctly chides her mother for “living in 1969” and derides the futility of the one-size-fits-all political protests she and her friends stage downtown, it’s clear that the town’s magic is beginning to work on the younger woman, particular once she meets a local man. (That the incipient couple’s defining moment is singing the Band’s 1968 staple “The Weight” in an on-stage duet shows the film’s acceptance of a backward-looking orientation.) After that, with a few additional conflicts thrown in for form’s sake, Woodstock makes its permanent move from the ridiculous to the sublime, its values embraced by almost everyone and its superiority to icy Manhattan made clear.
What saves the film from being simply a schematic mother-daughter reconciliation drama is both the reluctance and prickliness that Keener brings to her character (Fonda, by contrast, barely skirts self-parody) and the stories of the third generation, Diane’s teenage children Jake (Nat Wolff) and Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen). While Jake is equally interested in toting his digital camera around in hopes he’ll stumble on a film (“not a movie,” he insists, “a film”) and courting a local girl, Zoe makes time with the town butcher, trying to reconcile her own strong feelings about vegetarianism with her potential boyfriend’s career.
Beresford and screenwriters Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski use Jake’s camera and the boy’s accompanying interview questions as a way of bringing out hidden conflicts within the movie’s plotline, but the film-within-a-film tack seems rather an easy and empty device. When we see the final product, screened at a young filmmaker’s festival, it’s a mishmash of skillfully edited footage that makes vague statements about the political state of the world and the fractured state of Jake’s own family, but mostly just serves as a tribute to the town where it was shot.
But beyond the unnecessary meta angle introduced by the boy’s project, the younger generation stands as a potential way forward, a means of amalgamating the open-minded, socially conscious attitude of their grandmother with the practical worldliness of their mother. Jake and Zoe seem likely to achieve this balance, even if their stories are often subordinate to those of the older generations. Unfortunately, given everyone’s ultimate embrace of the town of Woodstock, the film seems content to deposit its characters in this magic land and leave untested any attempt to watch them reconcile idealism and wider-world realities for any length of time. Why bother, after all, when you can just hang out in an old house in the country, enjoy the company of your lover, and maybe take another hit of some choice weed?