Flirting With Disaster on a Family Trek
By Skip Sheffield
“The Discoverers” wins points for originality. I know there are all sorts of history re-enactor groups, but I never knew there was one for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805.
That is the off-the-beaten-path premise dreamed up by writer-director Justin Schwartz for his feature film debut. “Discoverers” was shot in 2012, but it is only just now making it our way.
Griffin Dunne stars as Lewis Birch, a rumpled, frustrated academic who teaches history at a small college in the East. Birch’s magnum opus is a massive manuscript on the Lewis and Clark Expedition he has been laboring on for 20 years. Birch has finally found a publisher at the academic press of tiny, obscure Eastern Kentucky State University. The school has arranged for Birch to unveil his masterpiece, or at least talk about it, at an academic conference in Oregon. Birch is pinning his hopes on interesting some real, prestigious university in his talents as teach and author.
There are problems. The manuscript is 6,862 pages long and they only want about 500. Birch is about to be divorced by his never-seen wife. He is disconnected from his children, moody Zoe (Madeleine Martin of “Californication”) and alienated Jack (Devon Graye of “American Horror Stories”). Birch gets the ill-conceived idea of taking his kids on a transcontinental road trip to the conference in hopes of reconnecting with them and renewing his inspiration. There are more problems. The biggest one is that Birch’s mother dies suddenly and his father Stanley is catatonic with grief, and then wanders off.
Stanley Birch participates in a costumed Lewis and Clark reenactment every summer. His shrink Dr. Salter (Todd Susman) thinks it might be good therapy for Stanley to participate as usual in this year’s trek.
Stanley is played by Emmy Award-winning actor Stuart Margolin, who proves you don’t need a lot of dialogue to convey emotion.
The kids are grudgingly dragged into this fiasco, in which their IDs, money, and means of communication are confiscated for historical accuracy.
It isn’t all misery on the trail. Lewis meets Nell (Cara Buono), a simpatico woman who befriends him. Jack meets Abigail (Dreama Walker) and sparks fly, with dangerous results.
Comedy is nicely balanced with real drama as it appears Stanley may indeed be going mad. “Discoverers” is more about family dynamics than American history, and that is what makes it ultimately worthwhile.