Parents try very hard to protect their children and at the same time teach them to be independent. And then we struggle to accept the consequences. That is what has happened to Frank Goode (Robert DeNiro), a recent widower preparing for a visit from his four grown children. When all four of them cancel, he decides to get his suitcase out of the attic and go see each of them. Well, he goes to visit each of them — without calling to let them know. But seeing them will take a little longer.
Based on the 1990 Italian film “Stanno tutti bene,” this is a quietly moving story of a family struggling to re-connect. Like many families, this one had one member, the mother, who operated as a communications hub and mediator. Without her, the grown children feel that their primary obligation is to protect their father, in part because that is what their mother did and in part because no one seems to know how to tell him that one of his children is in terrible trouble.
Frank takes the train, telling the other passengers that he helped to create the miles of telephone wire they are passing by. A million miles of wire to raise his family. And now, his children are constantly on cell phones that communicate without the tangible connection of wires. And no one is communicating with him.
What Frank thought of as encouragement they now see as impossibly high expectations, and each of them is afraid of letting him down. When Frank first arrives, he sees the children as they were. The married woman with a teen-age son (Kate Beckinsale) appears to him as a little girl (Beckinsale’s real-life daughter, Lily Mo Sheen). Director Kirk Jones adds a dreamlike, poetic tone to the story with these encounters, especially one near the end of the film when Frank sees the family gathering he was hoping for, with his sons and daughters appearing to him as the children they were, but letting him see and tell them the truth. Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, makes good use of the vast and varied American landscape as a metaphor for the distances and the connections between the characters. The simple, direct mode of the telephone lines Frank covered so carefully has splintered into a dozen ways of staying in touch — ways that can just as easily be frustrating just-misses that make us feel even more isolated. The movie gently shows us the challenges of maintaining those connections and the inevitability of getting it wrong sometimes — but also that even with that certainty, the importance of trying is what keeps everybody fine.