Fierce People is a 2005 independent drama thriller film adapted by Dirk Wittenborn from his 2002 novel of the same name. Directed by Griffin Dunne, it starred Diane Lane, Donald Sutherland, Anton Yelchin, Kristen Stewart, and Chris Evans. The film explores many facets of family and societal dysfunction, including drug abuse, mental illness and rape.
Trapped in his drug-dependent mother's apartment, 16-year-old Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) wants nothing more than to escape New York City. He wants to spend the summer in South America studying the Ishkanani Indians (known as the "Fierce People") with his anthropologist father whom he's never met. Finn's plan has to change after he is arrested when he buys drugs for his mother, Lower East Side Liz (Diane Lane), who works as a massage therapist. Determined to get their lives back on track, Liz moves the two of them into a guesthouse for the summer on the country estate of her ex-client, the aging billionaire, Ogden C. Osbourne (Donald Sutherland).
In Osbourne's world of privilege and power, Finn and Liz encounter the super rich, a tribe portrayed as fiercer and more mysterious than anything the teenager might find in the South American jungle. (Dirk Wittenborn, the author of the novel on which the film is based, grew up in a modest household and felt like an outsider among the super rich in an upper-crust New Jersey enclave.)
While Liz battles her substance abuse and struggles to win back her son's love and trust, Finn falls in love with Osbourne's granddaughter, Maya Langley (Kristen Stewart). He befriends her older brother, Bryce Langley (Chris Evans); and wins the favor of Osbourne. When violence ends Finn's acceptance within the Osbourne clan, the promises of this world quickly sour. Both Finn and Liz, caught in a harrowing struggle for their dignity, discover that membership in a group comes at a steep price.
Donald Sutherland as Ogden C. Osbourne Diane Lane as Liz Earl Anton Yelchin as Finn Earl Chris Evans as Bryce Langley Kristen Stewart as Maya Langley Paz de la Huerta as Jilly Blu Mankuma as Detective Gates Elizabeth Perkins as Mrs. Langley Christopher Shyer as Dr. Richard "Dick" Leffler Garry Chalk as McCallum Ryan McDonald as Ian Dexter Bell as Marcus Gates Kaleigh Day as Paige Aaron Brooks as Giacomo Teach Grant as Dwayne Dirk Wittenborn as Fox Blanchard Eddie Rosales as Iskanani shaman Will Lyman as Voice of documentary narrator
Portions of the film were shot on location in British Columbia, Canada at Hatley Castle. The film received a limited release and grossed $85,410 at the box office in the US.
IMDB "Fierce People" is a quirky coming-of-age tale told through the dark lens of a learning that the lives of the very rich are really blackest comedy. Uneven direction and a spotty screenplay (based by the author on his novel) almost do this movie in. What saves it is a gallery of first-rate performances by a fine cast. The acting is uniformly excellent, which keeps the viewer from focusing on what is basically very familiar territory.
You have to hand it to Diane Lane. Her role as the alcoholic (apparently recovering) mom is poorly written and inconsistently conceived by the director. But she gives it all she's got (which is plenty) and her later scenes with her son (also well portrayed by Anton Yelchin) achieve a depth and emotional impact that is a great credit to both actors. That depth sure isn't in the script.
Donald Sutherland is in great form as the seventh richest man in American who brings New York City masseuse Lane and her teenage son to the wilds of richest New Jersey. As his granddaughter, Kristen Stewart shows why she has zoomed to stardom in the "Twilight" films and to critical acclaim in movies like "Adventureland." Not only does the camera love her, she pays it back in full with a performance here that is remarkable for its subtle depths. (Watch her face when she gets in the black Mercedes in the movie's final scene.) As the grandson, Chris Evans is vivid and effective. (The camera loves him too.) The rest of the cast is great too. But highest praise goes to Elizabeth Perkins as Sutherland's alcoholic daughter (and mother of those aforementioned children). It's a small role, but she really comes across as she comically portrays a lifetime of privilege and desperation.
Despite the fine performances, many scenes fall flat and slide into confusion. Some of this may be due to the poor audio recording (at least on the DVD). Some of this may also be due to the inconsistent emotional focus of the script (which really needed another couple of rewrites, probably NOT by the author of the original novel).
Nice location work, though, wherever that estate was that most of the movie was shot!
Fierce People starts out as a satire-tinged, jocular drama that undergoes a jarring shift in tone to the dark side. While the film successfully makes light of such subjects as drug addiction and coma victims during its first half, the event that occurs around the mid-point is so grim that Dirk Wittenborn's screenplay simply closes down the humor and lets the film progress in a more sober fashion. In a way, it's a shame, because Fierce People is a lot of fun during its first hour; the final 45 minutes aren't as enjoyable. The distributor, Lionsgate, must have recognized the difficulty in getting people to watch the movie. It has taken more than two years since Fierce People's premiere at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival for it to finally see a limited theatrical distribution.
Oddly, this is the second movie in a few weeks to present modern-day life as an anthropological study. In The Nanny Diaries, a New Jersey girl goes to live in Manhattan, where she makes a study of the Upper West Side Tribe. In an odd reversal, Fierce People takes a New York boy and moves him to New Jersey, where he makes a study of a Garden State Tribe. The kid at the center of the story is Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin), whose drug-addicted mother, Liz (Diane Lane), is functioning as a single mother. Finn's anthropologist father, whom he has never met, lives in South America with the Iskanani Indians. In order to give Finn's life some structure, Liz decides to clean up and move to New Jersey. Her services as a masseuse are desired by gazillionaire Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland), who owes Liz something as a result of a past encounter. In the space of a few days, Finn is brushing shoulders with the rich and famous, including Osborne's dissolute grandchildren, Bryce (Chris Evans) and Maya (Kristen Stewart). He's also dallying with the maid, Jilly (Paz de la Huerta), although that stops once her crossbow-carrying boyfriend objects and Liz shows a willingness to kiss on the first, unconventional date.
The early parts of Fierce People contain a fair amount of understated humor. There's a scene in which Finn is busted while buying drugs for his mom. (No "good" deed goes unpunished.) His observations, provided via a voiceover, are snarky. And there's a sequence in which Jilly removes her top then watches incredulously as Finn loses interest because Osbourne has shown up nearby. One wonders about Finn's masculinity because, given an option between Paz de la Huerta's breasts and Donald Sutherland, only a eunuch would think there's a choice.
With this role, Diane Lane has graduated from love interest and leading lady to "mother." Despite having top billing, this is a supporting role and her romantic subplot is as tepid and forgettable as they come. Her character is oddly developed, going almost instantaneously from a drug abusing, neglectful mother to Florence Henderson. Anton Yelchin shows the kind of charm that would land him the lead in Charlie Bartlett (a film that would have beaten Fierce People to screens if it hadn't been put on hold). Donald Sutherland has no problem with the clichéd role of the wise old coot who has life lessons to impart to a young protégé. Chris Evans is suitably sleazy. And Kristen Stewart, who left an impression in In the Land of Women, shows why she was chosen for that part.
The story for Fierce People relies a little too much on plot contrivances, but that doesn't become apparent until after the end credits have rolled. The film is worthwhile primarily for the fun, breezy first hour. After that, it's a case of watching to find out how things turn out. Director Griffin Dunne obviously has a liking for movies that combine light and dark - his directorial debut was the sometimes uncomfortable Meg Ryan/Matthew Broderick rom-com, Addicted to Love - but his handling of the dramatic tone shifts in Fierce People is a little unsure. Overall, it's an enjoyable effort, but not a positive triumph.
"The movie came to life every time you were on the screen." Stan Lee to Chris Evans.
Fierce People is a vile movie about rich people behaving badly. And poor people, for that matter. In fact, nearly everyone with a pulse in this ugly, mean-spirited picture acts in a way that doesn't warrant any pats on the back or nods of approval.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The movie could have worked as a depraved look at human nature, if only the characters were the slightest bit interesting. Since that’s not the case, and Fierce People is equal parts dreary and grating, there’s really nothing here worth exploring. Move along, folks.
Set in the early 1980s, Fierce People is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Finn (Anton Yelchin), a poofy-haired New Yorker who is anxious to spend the summer with his estranged, tribe-studying father in South America. His plans are derailed, however, when his druggie, masseuse mother Liz (Diane Lane) slips up, again, and inadvertently gets Finn arrested. Deciding that it’s time for a change of pace and to perhaps say nope to dope, she brings her son to the fancy home of a billionaire client, Osbourne (Donald Sutherland).
Not a bad way to spend the summer, in theory. But as Finn points out early in the movie, and continues to repeat ad nauseam, these people act pretty much like they’re in a tribe themselves, leading him to turn his summer detour into an anthropological study. If you’ve seen the Ashley Judd disaster Someone Like You, which compares romantic relationships with wild animals, you’ll know that this storytelling device is more than a little tiresome.
Even more tiresome are the eyebrow-raising, arbitrary things that take place in Dirk Wittenborn’s absurd script, based on his book. Finn starts dating Osbourne’s granddaughter Maya (Kristen Stewart) after getting maimed by a deer trap--a lovely way to meet a romantic prospect. When they hang out with her yuppie brother Bryce (Chris Evans) to watch one of his dad’s tribal documentaries, it turns into a dance where everyone chants “fuck and kill!” followed by, naturally, some making out. Finn and his lady get in the mood by smearing paint all over each other’s bodies--it’s just that kind of movie.
Then there’s the scene where Osbourne drops trow to expose an eerie secret, and debunk the rumors of him sleeping with houseguest Liz. And, as the cherry on top, an instance where a male character goes for a late-night stroll in the woods and winds up being flung on the ground and raped anally. Yeah, charming stuff.
Fierce People, which sat on the shelf for two years, is the latest bungled directorial effort by actor Griffin Dunne, whose previous features include Practical Magic and Addicted To Love; perhaps it’s time for a permanent hiatus from behind-the-camera activities. The actors do their best with what they’re given, which isn’t much, but they seem to catch on to the fact that they’d be better off hitchhiking to another movie set. Especially Diane Lane, who at first seems to have a juicy role, until any traces of her personality are written out after getting sober.
This movie is so tonally confused, so artificially dramatic in a Lifetime TV kind of way, so painfully inept that it’s practically begging to be put out of its misery.
"The movie came to life every time you were on the screen." Stan Lee to Chris Evans.