i'm not sure if "The Daytrippers" is the first movie to take place primarily inside a station wagon. But it certainly does go a long way toward explaining why the family car is one of the most intimate spaces we know. (And why the station wagon will keep evolving into spin-offs like the minivan and not into those rocket-driven individual transportation devices they use on "The Jetsons.") Inside one such group-toting vehicle, writer-director Greg Mottola's entertaining debut captures the experience of an American family caught up in a crisis affecting one member. It's the adult equivalent of a family trip to the Dairy Queen to soften the blow of one kid's getting beaten up at school.
The story begins when Eliza (Hope Davis) finds a letter -- a love poem, actually -- to her husband from someone named Sandy. Unable to digest its implications alone, she drives out to Long Island to discuss it with her family. There, her overbearing mom, Rita (Anne Meara), her laconic father, Jim (Pat McNamara), her sister, Jo (Parker Posey), and sister's Kafka-reading boyfriend, Carl (Liev Schreiber), pile into the wagon and drive to Manhattan, the better to confront the possibly philandering Louis (Stanley Tucci). The result is a sweetly comic, small-scale essay on family interactions, a road movie that never seems to have left the dinner table.
Mottola finds his gods among the details, and his actors. As the trip unfolds, Jo's boyfriend spews out installments of a mind-bogglingly awful novel he's writing. (Its human protagonist has the head of a pointer dog, the better, the author explains, "to point out" things other characters need to know.) The father barely says anything -- he can't get a word in while his wife churns up a large outboard motor. (One of the film's few missteps is that Meara's blackboard-scraping portrayal quickly becomes shtick.) Meanwhile, Jo makes it clear that she's not on the same page with her would-be intellectual boyfriend. In fact, she's not even on the same planet.
In the midst of all this family bathos, Eliza's suffering almost comes off like one more minor car-trip problem -- akin to not having enough fast-food ketchup packets to go around. The beauty of "Daytrippers," though, is that it shows how being a member of a family like this means that while no one outwardly gives you a lot of credit for being in pain, you still get the security of knowing the whole clan has mobilized for you. Eliza understands this, and Davis' performance deftly revolves around this psychological axis.
Despite the literal mileage it racks up -- and despite one hilarious side trip into the apartment of a complete stranger -- the film doesn't really wander much beyond this emotional area. Things don't so much develop as spill out. A fight brewing between Jo and Carl lets the family explode at each other, but it's not nearly as fulfilling as the film's quieter moments, like when the two sisters ask about each other's method of birth control with a delicate mix of intimacy and guardedness. Or when the father finally opens his mouth -- and shows that he's nothing like the browbeaten silent sufferer he looks to be.
"Daytrippers" is so well-crafted that you may make it more than halfway through before wondering whether the story will sustain any lasting emotional power. It does -- but not in the way you think it's going to. The film's final confrontation in Manhattan between Eliza and Louis gives you something to think about, but it's the mental snapshots of the road trip that will keep you savoring its memory.
Despite the bite independent films took of last year's Oscar field, our movie industry -- and our movie-going habits -- aren't really supportive of writer-directors whose scope is that of a short-story teller rather than an epic mythmaker. That's unfortunate, because there's no reason why Mottola should go on to make big-budget studio projects if his talent really lies in making jewel-box works like this. Where would Eudora Welty's fans be if the world only nurtured "Gone with the Wind"?