In Justin Schwarz’s The Discoverers, Stanley Birch (Donald Margolin) is so distraught about the death of his wife that he lapses into a dissociative roleplaying persona, assuming the identity of explorer William Clark. His breakdown is in keeping with that special kind of movie lunacy that necessitates other characters to coddle his delusion, Lars and the Real Girl-style. The film doesn’t lack for indie clichés (flustered middle-aged academic lead, snarky daughter who sounds more like a PhD student than an actual teenager), but it pushes itself beyond shrill predictability in its willingness to indict—rather than ironically ridicule—the public and familial histories at its core. Schwarz’s study of the perils of hero worship makes the film work despite its goofy premise.
Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne), a once promising, recently divorced history professor, plans to bring his blasé teenage children, Zoe and Jack (Madeline Martin and Devon Graye), on a road trip to an important conference in Portland, Oregon, only to be waylaid by Stanley, who takes off unannounced into the woods to join a group of Lewis and Clark re-enactors. Lewis and his family recognize that the history books have romanticized the story of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, and The Discoverers is careful to never do the same. Birch’s life work is an attempt to celebrate the under-appreciated contributions of Clark’s slave, York, and Zoe offers a running commentary about the many social injustices perpetrated during the original trek. Still, Schwarz draws a few parallels: Dunne’s hero laments how, despite Meriwether Lewis’s achievements, the explorer committed suicide after failing to write a book documenting his adventures. It’s not always clear whether the film is skewering Lewis and Clark as colonial icons or celebrating their gumption, but Schwarz suggests that it needn’t be one or the other.
As Zoe, Martin’s sardonic delivery complements Lewis’s misfired but well-intentioned attempts at fatherly banter. Their exchanges display an endearing charmlessness: When she gets her first period in the middle of the trip, his first impulse is to awkwardly congratulate her. Their bond grows not through great moments of daring, but by small acts of thoughtfulness—including putting together a gluten free period-appropriate birthday cake. Lewis’s relationship with his father, meanwhile, is less compelling. Stanley’s late wife was also an avid recreationist, and we’re told that his trigger-happy roleplaying is a coping mechanism. But Lewis is already long-estranged from his parents well before his dad’s breakdown, and for good reason: At his wife’s funeral early in the film, the elder Birch insists that his wayward favorite child, Bill (John C. McGinley), deliver the eulogy that Lewis wrote. Whether personifying Clark or being himself, Stuart is such a miserable bastard that his relationship with his son seems barely worth salvaging.
Like its hero, this is a well-meaning, if sometimes meandering, film. Lewis has lived in the shadows of these explorers both personally and professionally, but The Discoverers doesn’t have Lewis abandon or embrace his namesake wholesale. Instead, the movie is concerned with the fulfillment afforded by small victories rather than history-making accomplishments. Lewis can’t trim his book down or find a decent publisher, but he can start a fire by hand, and that counts for something. The film carves out a circuitous route to its eventual destination, but when the Birches finally do gaze out at the ocean, it feels like an earned finale. This Lewis doesn’t get to the Pacific by foot or by boat; he drives there in a crappy old car.