With its picturesque beaches and signature clay tile roofs, Palos Verdes, California resembles a little slice of paradise, but it’s a paradise that’s carefully maintained by wealth and exclusion. Through any number of subtle measures, among them zoning ordinances, the city ensures that only the right people have access to its natural and manmade luxuries.
The Masons, the family at the center of Emmett and Brendan Malloy’s The Tribes of Palos Verdes, aren’t really right for this affluent city, despite being able to afford to move there. Sixteen-year-old Medina Mason (Maika Monroe) enjoys the area’s ample opportunities for surfing but otherwise finds her new home stultifying. Deliberately anti-social, she has only one friend: her twin brother, Jim (Cody Fern). Her mother, Sandy (Jennifer Garner), also feels like an outsider, unable to fit in with the prim-and-proper women at the country club. Only Medina’s cardiologist father, Phil (Justin Kirk), seems to like Palos Verdes without reservation, taking to the area so well that he leaves his family for a local real estate agent (Alicia Silverstone). It’s a move that sets off a downward spiral for the rest of the Masons: Sandy lapses into manic depression, Jim takes up hard drugs, and Medina retreats into surfing.
With lens flare-heavy camerawork, a washed-out color palette, and a moody indie-chic soundtrack, the Malloys present their angsty melodrama through an Instagram filter-like haze that renders everything murky and unemphatic. The almost world-weary tone may sync up with the film’s theme of SoCal ennui, but the directors’ inability to ever truly vary the register of their filmmaking (nearly every scene is shot in the same clumsy handheld style) leads the narrative to feel aimless and dramatically inert. And the few instances that see the Malloys shaking things up—as in the film’s long opening shot, which follows Medina from her backyard pool, through her new home, and out the other side overlooking the ocean—scan as showy overcompensation.
The film does at least make effective use of its location, emphasizing the physical separation between the rocky beach that’s Medina’s surfing respite and the house high on the ridge that’s the locus of her anxieties. Monroe grounds the film with an affecting performance that delicately suggests Medina’s anguish. When Medina hits the waves, she seems lighter, free from the load of her parents’ bullshit and her brother’s downward spiral, even though these twin forces loom just above her at the top of the cliff.
The Tribes of Palos Verdes isn’t so expressive outside of its surfing scenes, leaning heavily on Medina’s voiceover narration to flesh out the dysfunctional dynamics of the Mason family, fill in the story’s narrative gaps, and, in the end, provide some YA-friendly take-home lessons about finding your tribe. As Jim falls deeper and deeper into drugs and depression, the sibling relationship takes center stage. Medina keeps telling us how close she is with her brother, but like so much in the film, it’s an assertion whose emotional weight the Malloys’ filmmaking never makes the viewer feel.