Slamdance 2023: A Perfect Day for Caribou — A Meandering Day of Melancholy

CW: References to Suicide

“I don’t want you just to know me as the father who killed himself,” starts Jeff Rutherford’s solemnly seeking two-hander about the transferred difficulty of father-son relationships. Jeb Berrier’s Herman is about to end things but, first, he’s going to record an outgoing message for his son Nate, played by Charlie Plummer. Not all plans go off on schedule, as Nate ends up calling his father, and they connect around a graveside, before going on a meandering walk through nondescript American woods and fields, where Nate loses his own young son on the way and the two men go out looking for him with halting progress, like the only way to find him is to come to understand themselves by talking about it.

The black-and-white film, shot in Academy ratio, unfolds with meandering melancholy. The men fumble slowly across the vast landscape. They’re in no special hurry to find this missing child. They have missed enough in their lifetimes to be used to missing things this way. The film plays metaphorically in this style and you can connect it squarely to the other black-and-white independent films of its ilk or to the contemporary works of wandering slow cinema.

This sort of mumblecore minimalism still has a place. Perhaps the purpose of these films is narrowing while the gap between the biggest films and the smallest ones is ever-widening. It’s nice to take your take. To take a father-son stroll and just examine having a father-son stroll. The simplest things are the most delightful. One thing cinema can do is act as a portal to normal, mundane things. And why not? A walk is as valid as a run. A conversation that doesn’t go somewhere can be as useful as dialogue designed to move a plot in deterministic ways.

Simplicity is key. Dialogue carries the movie and it plays out as particularly incisive between Herman and Nate. Charlie Plummer continues to be of great interest, channeling something like a follow-up to his terrific performance in Lean on Pete (2017). We’re always looking for generational breakouts and while it’s coming to us with a deal of seeming reticence to accept this, Charlie Plummer seems to me to be this actor. Jeff Rutherford also ably conveys an elderly father nearing the end of his line. Together, they make the movie work, not so much out of obvious chemistry, but out of a kind of matched slumped-down posture and pairing of emotions.

The debut film of Jeff Rutherford, A Perfect Day for Caribou searches for compassion in a world that does not supply it for us. Fatherhood, as a search for compassion, is always an interesting prospect. Pairing generations of fathers together means these themes can be explored across multiple directions. You can see the cause and the effect, the great rippling of generational trauma and what we inflict upon our offspring. There is a resounding guilt at the center of the movie and nothing to absolve it. The film, while smart at exploring larger themes, much like its central characters, can occasionally wander off-path (especially with a couple of intersecting stories), no longer saying as much explicitly as it thinks it’s doing. Stay with it, however, and just enough meaning can be distilled from its themes and lost-in-the-woods aesthetics.

At some point in the film, the characters express their smallness in the world. This is a small movie. The thing about it being a small movie, and feeling small in a big world, is that it’s not an invalid way to be. In this case, it is the truest way for the story to be. One last small chance of understanding in a big life that didn’t understand us. You can impart what you need into the characters here. There is more to analyze than there is to explicitly see. Sometimes, your reading of a film is most of the work that happens inside it. What we’re left with is at least two certainties: Jeff Rutherford has a suitable contemporary lens on male relationships and Charlie Plummer is one of our next great art house actors just waiting for the right projects.


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