A cemetery is not an auspicious choice of rendezvous point for an estranged father and son arranging what might be one last meeting in “A Perfect Day for Caribou,” but the dry joke of Jeff Rutherford’s tender, affectingly reserved first feature is that things get more melancholic still when they leave its glum confines. Set over the course of a single day on the fringes of some dead American anytown, this at once quiet and talkative two-hander covers no especially new ground, but strides known territory with a keen eye for lonesome landscapes, and an ear for the eternal communicative impasse felt by men who know each other all too well and not at all. Sturdy, thoughtful performances from Jeb Berrier and, in particular, rising star Charlie Plummer should hook distributor interest in this low-key indie following its premiere in Locarno’s newcomer-oriented Cineasti de Presente strand.
The gruffly dysfunctional father-son relationship at “Caribou’s” center, in conjunction with its spartan middle-American milieu and serene black-and-white lensing, will inevitably call Alexander Payne’s lauded “Nebraska” to mind for any viewers or marketers seeking comparison points. Rutherford, however, is a less acidic, more gently perceptive writer of masculine dysfunction than Payne, and in its best moments, his debut reaches for the mournful everyday poetry of Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” or Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy.” Elsewhere, the film feels a little determined in its minimalism, a little too cute in its brushes of absurdism. Still, it promises significant things from its young writer-director, who shows more formal nous and rigor than many neophyte directors of comparable U.S. indies.
It begins as Berrier’s show, the rumpled character actor holding our attention over the course of a lengthy, discursive introductory monologue that, we soon gather, is an audio suicide note of sorts. “I don’t think there are any charms left for me in this life,” mutters weatherbeaten drifter Herman into a dictaphone, from the front seat of a pickup truck that has all his worldly possessions, such as they are, packed into it. Addressing his adult son Nate, he nonetheless tellingly narrates his failed life story as if to a stranger, occasionally disrupting his own memories with stray stabs of random life advice: join a union, use vinegar to buff out spots on a car, don’t mess around with electrodes. “I don’t want you just to know me as the father who killed himself,” he sighs; an unexpected opportunity to mend that perception comes when Nate calls him out of the blue, and asks to meet.
His plans to end his life thus unexpectedly postponed, he’s further surprised to find the twentysomething Nate with his own toddler Ralph (Oellis Levine) in tow. For all their time apart, the two men have a certain shambling dejection in common, not to mention a hands-off parenting style: As they begin to haltingly talk through the years lost between them, ambling through the sleepy graveyard where Herman’s truck is parked, Nate instructs Ralph to run off and play. The kid disappears in short order; a reunion becomes a search party. As they comb desolate neighboring fields and forests, the pair share recollections and resentments from Nate’s upbringing, though the fluency of Herman’s earlier, unaccompanied monologue is nowhere to be found.
There’s little urgency in their quest, which takes on a dreamlike, fatalistic air, as if a small boy is merely emblematic of many things the two fathers are missing between them. Other characters — a hunter, a caretaker — mosey into the situation, glancing or sympathizing, before melting back into their own isolation. There might be a COVID-era pragmatism to the film’s sparse setup and ensemble, though at a more philosophical level, “A Perfect Day for Caribou” appears to unfold in a vacuum of community, a place and time when people have abandoned their obligations to others. All stark Academy-ratio framing and rippling Ansel Adams crevices of light and shadow, DP Alfonso Herrera Salcedo’s compositions frequently bury the two men in their natural surroundings, humanity often making as little of an imprint as possible on these Oregon-shot vistas.
Close-ups are rare: Plummer, back in the hardscrabble, sad-eyed mode of his breakout turn in Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” and Berrier reveal much through the particular hunch and lean of their bodies, the loping slowness or nervous speed of their gait. The men of “A Perfect Day for Caribou” don’t much want to be looked at, not least because they’ve rarely stood back to take a look at themselves: With good sense and grace, and from an often cautious distance, this assured, soulful film sees them just the same.
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