Elizabeth Banks as Frankie
Chris Pine as Sam
Olivia Wilde as Hannah
Michael Hall D'Addario as Josh
Michelle Pfeiffer as Lillian
Jon Favreau as Richards
Mark Duplass as Ted
Philip Baker Hall
Devin Brochu as Simon
Barbara Eve Harris as Mrs. Haney
Dean Chekvala as Jerry
Directed by Alex Kurtzman
When Sam Harper (Chris Pine) learns his estranged father, a music biz icon, has passed away, he returns to Los Angeles with his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) to pay his respects, thinking his financial problems are over when his father's attorney hands him a shaving kit containing $150 thousand. He soon learns that the money is meant for the older sister he never knew he had, and he covertly infiltrates the life of single mother Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her son Jake (Michael Hall D'Addario), unsure of how to break the news of their blood relationship to them.
Working with his long-time collaborator Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman is responsible for writing and/or producing some of the biggest action and sci-fi blockbusters of the past five or six summers (plus quite a few TV shows to boot), so it's surprising that his first time in the director's chair produces a relatively quiet character drama and that it's loosely based on true aspects of his life after discovering he had a half-sister from his father's other marriage.
Filling in for Kurtzman is Chris Pine's Sam Harper, an East Coast trade negotiator who learns his music business luminary father has died, so he begrudgingly returns to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) in tow to attend the funeral and get closure with his mother Lillian, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. He soon learns that he has a half-sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) from his father's previous relationship and she's not been having a good life. Besides her father leaving when she was very young, she spent most of her adult life abusing alcohol and having one-night stands, before becoming a single mother working at dead-end bartending jobs. Sam's intrusion into their lives comes two-fold, first as he creates a chance encounter with Frankie at an Alcoholics' Anonymous meeting and then seeing Josh at school (saying he's a friend of his mother). As hard as Sam tries not to get too involved in their lives, before he knows it, he's a mentor to Josh and a confidante to Frankie.
The results are a strong intimate character drama, much like the kind of films Lisa ("The Kids Are Alright") Cholodenko has been making for years, only Kurtzman uses his good will with DreamWorks to get a bigger budget for what could have easily been done as a smaller indie.
As much as it feels like a departure from Kurtzman's previous work, it's driven by a well-developed screenplay and a talented cast bringing their A-games to give real weight to the characters and situations. Pine plays Sam with all the charm he's displayed in previous roles, and he has no problems carrying such a film, although much of the dramatic heavy lifting falls to Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer as his mother. Pfeiffer is still in top form with some powerful emotional scenes with Pine where mother and son try to deal with years of estrangement, but it's Banks who once again proves her dramatic chops with a character contending with so many problems raising her rebellious son even before Sam comes along and complicates matters.
As much as the drama takes predominance, this isn't a deathly serious movie with plenty of joyous moments watching Sam bond with his newly-found sister and nephew. Michael Hall D'Addario is quite a find as the latter, pulling something out of both Pine and Banks we haven't seen from either of them. The small cast is rounded out with a somewhat inconsequential role for indie stalwart Mark Duplass as Frankie's neighboring f*ck-buddy.
Kurtzman gives the film slick production values that back up the film's studio-funded budget but never takes away from the characters and performances, which is quite an achievement in itself, and the unconventional choice of A.R. Rahman ("Slumdog Millionaire") to compose the score proves to be his smartest decision after the casting.
A big hurdle his film faces is that it sometimes plays out a bit like a Lifetime Channel movie with better production values, and an even bigger problem is that by the last act, there's only a few ways the story can go. We know that Sam will eventually have to reveal the truth to Frankie and Josh, and they can only really react one of two or three ways, which then leads to similarly predictable options for its resolution. Kurtzman finds a way of getting around this by getting you so invested in the characters by that point, you really do care what happens to them, and ultimately, that's what absolves it from ever feeling corny or overtly sentimental.
The Bottom Line:
As deeply a personal story as one can get morphed into a warm crowd-pleasing story that anyone can relate to, Alex Kurtzman's directorial debut may sneak up on you as a welcome alternative to typical summer fare.