Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
Finn Earl (a chirpy Anton Yelchin) lives in a shabby New York apartment with his mother, Liz (a radiantly needy Diane Lane), a cokehead masseuse; he’s never met his father, a renowned anthropologist who studies Amazonian tribes. Finn, who’s about to turn 16, is scheduled to spend the summer with Dad, observing the Ishkanani, whose name translates as “fierce people.” But the day before his departure, the kid is busted while scoring blow for mom. So instead of going to Brazil, Finn is transported to New Jersey, where his mother thinks she and her son will be safe in the enclave of her richest client, imperious but benign Ogden C. Osborne (a suitably aristocratic Donald Sutherland). The Osbornes are the beasts mentioned in the title, of course, an idea that director Griffin Dunne underlines multiple times in red ink, then highlights with a Day-Glo yellow marker. Adapted by Dirk Wittenborn from his own novel, Fierce People is the sort of parable that should have remained on the page. The kinship between the Osbornes and the Ishkanani would be more convincing if it weren’t explicitly visualized. But not only does Dunne interject documentary footage of the Indians, he also stages scenes in which Finn and Osborne’s grandchildren, cocky Bryce (a typecast Chris Evans) and moony Maya (Kristen Stewart, this year’s jailbait icon) don native headdresses, smear themselves with bodypaint, and smoke a ceremonial pipe. Finn is eagerly accepted by Osborne and his grandkids; Maya even takes him as her summer fling. Yet someone in the family entourage resents Finn’s arrival and waylays him after dark. The attack is incoherently directed, but we’re led to understand that Finn’s virility has been compromised. That necessitates one last trip to the jungle, though the downfall of the villain—whose identity is never really in doubt—is neither morally nor narratively satisfying. Fierce People has been gathering dust for more than a year without a distributor, and it’s easy to see why. It’s too heavy for the average multiplex patron yet too light to justify its foray into sexual assault and murder. As anthropology, the movie is shallow; as satire, it’s far from fierce.