Twelve-year-old Greta's (Ryan Simpkins) dad Tom (John Hawkes) is moving the family cross-country to Arcadia, California. He packs Greta, big sister Caroline (Kendall Toole) and kid brother Nat (Ty Simpkins) into a beat-up old station wagon. Mom is supposed to join them later but in the meantime Tom promises a fun family road-trip including a visit to the Grand Canyon en route to their California paradise. But as they travel across deserts and plains, stopping at fast food joints and shoddy motels, Greta grows to suspect her father is lying to them.
It seems whenever America goes through a period of disillusionment there is a revival of the road movie. Time and again American cinema revisits the notion that reconnecting with the open road and wide vistas can replenish one's spiritual batteries. The idea that one can up sticks in search of a better life somewhere over the next horizon is an integral aspect of the American. It dates back to the pioneers of the old West but in movie terms proved just as potent in the depression era with The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the post-Sixties malaise of Easy Rider (1969) or the existential crisis dealt with in Paris, Texas (1985) and more or less every road movie made since. With Arcadia writer-director Olivia Silver expands her short film Little Canyon (2008) to feature length and counter-balances one man's desperate search for a fresh start with the emotional toll upon his young family. Tom is both hero and villain of this story, taking an emotional burden on himself to protect his kids from the harsher aspects of life yet inadvertently destroying their childhood innocence.
At first Tom starts out upbeat, energetic and excited about the move yet an undercurrent of unease lurks throughout. Throughout the unfolding story Silver drops hints something is very wrong as Tom is embroiled in a road rage incident, lies to the police and gripes at a grumpy waitress in a scene amusingly reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's famous diner meltdown in Five Easy Pieces (1970). It culminates in a breakdown moments away from the Grand Canyon where Tom rails something must be amiss with modern America when visiting a national monument costs forty-nine dollars. Following acclaimed work in Winter's Bone (2010) and The Sessions (2012) seasoned character actor John Hawkes continues his run of affecting indie dramas though the star turn here comes from co-star Ryan Simpkins. Despite her tender years, Simpkin has fast built an impressive resume of her own which includes writing, producing and directing a short comedy called Sitters Street (2009) at age eleven! She is very impressive here as the outspoken, fiercely moral Grace contrasted with the more ambiguous attitude to right and wrong shown by her father.
Olivia Silver presents a loving, nurturing portrait of sibling relationships which is rare in movies. Despite occasional friction these kids care about each other and their dad. They are beguilingly faceted and real, sharing great chemistry with Hawkes. The film meanders in a way indie dramas tend to but its vision of an eye-catching yet faintly hostile landscape of trailer parks, grubby motels and unfriendly roadside diners is sobering plus the eventual explosion in family tension as Tom abandons Grace in the desert proves suspenseful and upsetting. Like a lot of road trips it is not the destination that matters so much as the journey. The conclusion that life goes on treads a fine line between trite TV movie of the week and heartwarming indie odyssey but at its most lyrical the film poignantly conveys a child's sense of powerlessness in a world run by flawed, insecure grownups.