Independent movies are on the march as they've rarely been in the past.
The latest evidence comes from this year's list of Academy Award nominees, dominated by "indies" in every major category. Some pundits have professed surprise at this development. But it only confirms moviegoers' growing sense that small-scale films often provide pleasures their big-studio cousins can't offer, despite high-profile stars and high-tech parades of exploding fireballs and soaring spaceships.
Indies opening between now and Oscar time may reap extra benefits from headlines trumpeting the pleasures of their breed. Few recipients of this publicity will be more deserving than "The Daytrippers," a nifty little comedy full of hearty laughs and sincere emotions. It's a happy reminder of the satisfactions to be found in an aspect of moviemaking often overlooked by cinema sophisticates: good solid acting, brought to the screen by a director who's attuned to the moods of his performers as well as the technological gizmos of his camera.
"The Daytrippers" begins in a modest Long Island home, where a hitherto happy wife stumbles upon an unhappy piece of mail: a love letter her husband has apparently received from some secret admirer.
Half disbelieving and half devastated, she decides to head for Manhattan and put an end to the uncertainty caused by her discovery. Along the way she picks up a few companions for the trip: her nosy mother, her indecisive father, her feisty young sister, and the earnest young fellow who'll be her brother-in-law before long.
Together they pile into the family car and start combing the big city for the errant spouse. Along the way they have many surprising adventures, providing challenges and eliciting emotions none of them expected to experience when they woke up that morning.
The premise behind "The Daytrippers" is the hardest element of the movie to swallow; it's hard to believe a possibly wronged wife would take her whole family along for what's likely to be an intimate and painful confrontation. Once you've suspended your disbelief in this area, however, the movie takes off with a comic energy and dramatic momentum that rarely flag before the bittersweet finale.
Much of the credit goes to first-time filmmaker Greg Mottola, who has directed his own sharp-witted screenplay with consistent wit and imagination.
But even more goes to the cast, which brings together some of the most talented performers on the current indie scene. Hope Davis, stuck mainly in bit parts and supporting roles until now, is impressively strong and poignantly vulnerable as the wife with a mission. Parker Posey, surely the busiest actress in low-budget film today, plays the sister with the same charm she's shown in pictures ranging from "subUrbia" and "Waiting for Guffman" to "Party Girl" and "The Doom Generation."
Liev Schreiber has been almost as active as Posey in recent months, but she shows no signs of fatigue as the sister's all-too-serious fianc. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, who teamed up for the acclaimed "Big Night," are just right as the wandering husband and a lecherous author who turns his oily attentions on a member of the day-tripper group.
And a special nod goes to the wonderful Anne Meara, who plays the overwrought mom with all the skill and sensitivity she's acquired in decades of distinguished work. Marcia Gay Harden and Douglas McGrath round out the ensemble.
Despite its low price tag and modest appearance, "The Daytrippers" has earned official praise at a long list of film festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, including a couple of "audience awards" bestowed not by picky critics but regular moviegoers looking for nothing more than two hours of enjoyable entertainment. They found it in "The Daytrippers," and now general audiences can take the same engaging ride.
* 'The Daytrippers' has not been rated; it contains a sex scene, some four-letter words and other vulgarities, and material related to adultery and homosexuality.