A collection of colorful characters in a ramshackle, class-clash whodunit
Directed by Griffin Dunne — who, as the son of jet-setting Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne, knows a thing or two about rubbing elbows with the wealthy — the 1980-set Fierce People is chiefly about the collision of classes, and how even affluent factions result to primitive behavior. A collection of wildly colorful characters in search of some sort of narrative cohesiveness, though, the movie, adapted by screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn from his own novel, never gels into something more than the occasional, piecemeal entertainment of its fractured parts.
Anton Yelchin stars as 15-year-old Finn, a well-intentioned kid pinched buying drugs for his mother Liz (Diane Lane), a part-time masseuse in the “good-time junkie” mold. This bust wrecks Finn’s plans of spending the summer with his estranged anthropologist father, studying the remote jungle Ishkanani tribe. Instead, Liz drags Finn out to the rural New Jersey enclave of Vlyvalle, to spend the summer with her eccentric sugar daddy, Ogden Osborne (Donald Sutherland). While Liz begins attending AA meetings in an effort to correct her mistakes and win back Finn’s love and trust, she also strikes up a dubious relationship with her sponsor and Osborne’s physician, Dr. Leffler (Christopher Shyer).
Observant, hoi polloi gate-crasher Finn, meanwhile, settles into life with the “tribe” of wealthy country-clubbers that inhabit his new home. He finds a brazen flirt in maid Jilly (Paz de la Huerta), a kinda-sorta girlfriend in Osborne’s granddaughter, Maya (Kristen Stewart), and a strange mentor and advocate in Maya’s older brother Bryce (Chris Evans), a rakish college washout. Unfortunately, just as Finn thinks he’s found his way, things begin to spiral out of control. Sexual awakenings both pleasant and quite rude then ensue, and Finn begins to see that wealth can be a mask for some nasty deeds.
Yes, one might be surprised to learn that Fierce People, in its third act, essentially becomes a whodunit about Finn’s ass-rape at the hands of a mysterious assailant. Or perhaps that’s not a surprise. After all, that seems to make about as much sense as some of the arbitrariness on display here. Despite a sometimes great touch with barbed dialogue, Wittenborn’s text feels a bit too precious for its own good; it capriciously absolves all adults of responsibility merely to pitch its younger characters forward in the narrative.
It’s not necessarily the consistent collision of wackiness and earnest symbolism that hamstrings Fierce People. After all, a film need only unfold in a world that makes sense within the parameters of its own devising. But the tucked away cul-de-sac of exclusivity in which Fierce People unfolds never quite feels fully sketched out. It’s there to exist only in contradiction to Finn’s previous experience. Single mother Liz is a junkie in name only, never forced to face the consequence of any of her actions (indeed, that she would have a kid as smart and functional as Finn seems a stretch), and the nature of her relationship with Osborne, once revealed, comes off as a bit of a yawn.
Unfortunately — though actually what you’d call fairly well directed, in that it’s all of a piece — neither is Fierce People hyper-stylized enough to qualify as a sly satire. You mostly forgive Dunne the piling on of allegorical stylings, because he wrings invested performances out of his actors and folds into proceedings some nice music from Nick Laird-Clowes, whose score incorporates light tribal percussive elements. Still, Fierce People feels like a grouping of potentially interesting, if sometimes thinly drawn, characters in service of an undercooked narrative premise we see reflected more starkly every day in tabloid celebrity misbehavior. It’s too contrived to be taken seriously and too burdened with thoughtful parallel imagery to be enjoyed as a trashy delight.