A quirky road-trip dramedy in the not-so-grand tradition of Little Miss Sunshine and Captain Fantastic, writer-director Shana Feste’s Boundaries puts three generations of the dysfunctional Jaconi family in an antique Rolls-Royce and sends them cruising down the Pacific Coast for some wacky misadventures and sentimental fence-mending. Laura (Vera Farmiga), a chronic dog rescuer with unresolved daddy issues, is forced to haul her impetuous father, Jack (Christopher Plummer), all the way from Seattle to Los Angeles to drop him off at her sister’s (Kristen Schaal) apartment after he’s kicked out of his nursing home for dealing weed. Along for the ride is Laura’s socially awkward teenage son, Henry (Lewis MacDougall), whom Jack embroils in his plan to peddle a huge cache of marijuana along the way.
The film alternates between cutesy comedy and undercooked emotional drama, attempting to balance Laura’s struggle to understand a father who largely abandoned her as a child with inane scenes like the one in which Jack and Henry sell pot to a bunch of Buddhist monks. Neither the script’s stabs at humor nor its overall dramatic arc leave an impact because the whole thing is so fundamentally phony. The film’s plot points, character attributes, and dialogue don’t so much reflect a genuine engagement with the messy realities of family estrangement as they do the dictates of contemporary screenwriting, where every detail must be neatly tied back into the whole. Boundaries is relentlessly explaining itself to us: Why does Henry draw weird naked pictures of the people he knows? Because he’s trying to depict their souls. Why is Laura attracted to shitty guys? Because they remind her of her father.
The film loosens up a bit when the Jaconi clan detours to visit some of Jack’s longtime pals, among them an art forger played with typically loopy charisma by Christopher Lloyd. But even an appealingly low-key scene in which Jack hangs out with the hip, ever-vaping Joey (Peter Fonda) devolves into silly madcap antics when a couple of dimwitted robbers break into Joey’s house and Laura comes bounding after them wielding a bow and arrow. Too often Feste relies on the ostensibly hilarious incongruity of an elderly man talking dirty and dealing drugs to garner laughs. Plummer brings a twinkly eyed insouciance to his character, but there’s only so many times Jack can make a joke about, say, his adult diapers before it becomes thin and hollow.
Ultimately, Jack is too vaguely sketched for the viewer to get fully invested in Laura’s inevitable reconciliation with him. It doesn’t help that Feste keeps the exact nature of his inadequate parenting on the hazy side: We understand that Jack had the habit of leaving Laura and her sister for weeks at a time, but further details, such as the age of the girls or what Jack was doing with himself when he left his daughters on their own, are left frustratingly undefined. Consequently, Jack comes off more as an assemblage of character traits—charming and mostly well-meaning but a bit of an asshole—than a man with a complicated, decades-long history that has deeply scarred those closest to him. Boundaries wants us to root for Laura to forgive her dad, but it never lets us know what she’s supposed to be forgiving him for.