Nine years after her 1998 feature debut Slums of Beverley Hills, writer-director Tamara Jenkins returns with this richly observed and terrifically acted character study. The Savages of the title are a pair of intellectual middle-aged siblings Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman): he is a dishevelled drama professor, labouring over a book on Bertolt Brecht and struggling to commit to his Polish girlfriend; she is a struggling New York playwright stuck in a going-nowhere affair with a married neighbour. When their estranged father Lenny (Philip Bosco) starts writing in excrement on the walls of his Arizona bathroom, brother and sister reluctantly decide to move the senile dementia sufferer to an East Coast nursing facility.
Judiciously balancing humour and sorrow, Jenkins proves a quietly assured storyteller. Other filmmakers might have used flashbacks and melodramatic confessions to flesh out the damaged childhoods experienced by Wendy and Jon, and would have sentimentalised the dying Lenny. The focus in The Savages, however, is on the here-and-now and how past events have impacted on the ability of the intellectually able yet emotionally immature siblings to love and be loved. In turn Linney and Seymour Hoffman both respond with unshowy, multilayered performances.
Cameo, Edinburgh and selected release from Fri 25 Jan.