'The Discoverers' Puts an Oregon Spin on the Dysfunctional-Family Indie Comedy

Starring Griffin Dunne and Stuart Margolin, the story of a family dropped into a Lewis and Clark reenactment trek thrives with sharp, and sometimes heartwarming, dialogue. Now at the Fox Tower.

By Schuyler Keenan June 25, 2014

The Discoverers begins much like how one prepares for a cross-country trip: slowly, methodically packing in all the essentials and small comforts of home that will fit. We meet Lewis Birch (wonderfully played by Griffin Dunne, most recently seen in The Dallas Buyers Club), an idealistic community college teacher by day and security guard by night in Chicago. He struggles desperately both to jumpstart his dying career and for the affection of his kids—Zoe (Madeleine Martin), the Chomsky-reading vegan, and Jack (Devon Graye), the stoned skater who sinks into his sketchbook.

In an attempt to salvage his not-yet-published book on York, the slave who assisted the explorers Lewis and Clark, Lewis sets out with his kids to an academic conference in Oregon. But after the death of his mother, he abandons the conference for a Lewis and Clark reenactment journey, which his own history-obsessed father forced him to do as a child. Assuming the role of Clark is said grief-stricken dad (Emmy-winner Stuart Margolin), who hasn’t spoken with his son in over a decade.

Dysfunctional family? Check. Beautiful Oregon scenery? Check. Lewis and Clark theme? Check. Let’s go.

The Discoverers
The Fox Tower
With the well-drawn characters in place in the unlikely, cell phone–adverse setting, the movie, written and directed by first-timer Justin Schwarz, quickly finds its footing in sharp dialogue, as the family’s struggles with historical accuracy ensures that they stay at each other’s throats. The best moments come from Lewis and Zoe’s interactions. When her dietary needs, or first period, call for modern technology, it’s up to Lewis to balance his duties as a son with those as a father. The result is equal parts hilarious and heartwarming.

A thread of social commentary runs through the film, as well. The movie opens with Lewis pushing his students to question what it means when “history is written by the winners.” This thought is continued during the trek with moments of Native American caricature, which Zoe (thankfully, for the audience) points out as overwhelmingly offensive. Uncomfortable and sometimes crass, for sure, but a knowing nod to the cultural insensitivity mostly prompts chuckles rather than anger.

Really, when it comes down to it, how could a cute, indie-comedy filmed in Oregon, about Oregon, fail to please Oregonians? We love to celebrate our home, especially when the commentary on historical context and family dynamics keeps the brain engaged as much as the heart.

We’ve already made it to Oregon, but watching others make the journey is satisfying all the same.

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