“Why are these characters together?” is a question all writers need to answer when crafting their stories. You need a reason for a group of people to be in one place if you want them to interact, which then is the only way the story moves forward and drama or comedy is able to be brought forth. Sometimes it’s a dinner party, sometimes it’s an AA meeting…whatever the case, stories almost always require proximity.
A few recent movies show that screenwriters have rediscovered the road trip as a way to put two or more people together for extended periods of time. Not only that, but it’s been used on at least three separate occasions as a way for children to reconnect with their estranged elderly parents.
It’s a good conceit, allowing for a bunch of people to be in a confined space for extended periods of time, which forces them to get real about the issues they have with each other. There are still enough opportunities for external stimuli, though, in the form of roadside dining, hotel stays, unscheduled visits to monuments or extended family and more. Of course in each situation the writer has to find a reason why other modes of transportation aren’t feasible, otherwise the story is over in the airport drop off lane.
So let’s take a look at the who and why of three recent or upcoming movies that, like Clark Griswold, decided to load up the family truckster and hit the open road. It should be noted, though, that none of these movies seem to feature “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” which you can take as you will.
The Elderly Parent: Ben (Ed Harris), a famous photojournalist with cancer who has weeks at most to live.
The Estranged Child: Matt (Jason Sudeikis), a divorced A&R guy who’s in the midst of trying to save his job at a record label.
The Wild Card: Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen), Ben’s hospice nurse and assistant, who comes along to administer his medication and keep an eye on his health.
Purpose of Trip: Ben has discovered an old roll of Kodachrome film and needs to travel to the last store able to develop it before it closes in a week.
Why Can’t They Fly: Ben’s health needs rule out air travel.
How the Parent Helps: Matt finds that Ben’s uncompromising determination to be bluntly honest, something his pending death has only made more pronounced, is helpful in certain situations and even if it doesn’t save his job it might open up more opportunities for something else.
The Elderly Parent: Jack (Christopher Plummer), a lifelong pot grower and dealer.
The Estranged Child: Laura (Vera Farmiga), his daughter who embraced order and rule-following after watching her father do neither.
The Wild Card: Henry (Lewis MacDougall), Laura’s son who never really had a chance to get to know his grandfather before.
Purpose of Trip: Jack has been kicked out of yet another care facility and is going to be moving in with his other daughter, JoJo (Kristen Schaal).
Why Can’t They Fly: It’s not stated explicitly in the trailer, but let’s assume Jack’s history has placed him on several watchlists.
How the Parent Helps: Hey, it turns out that loosening up and smoking a little pot now and then isn’t such a bad idea. Plus, there are dogs involved.
An Actor Prepares
The Elderly Parent: Atticus (Jeremy Irons), an aging actor who’s not quite ready to exit the stage.
The Estranged Child: Adam (Jack Huston), his son who still harbors issues over how Atticus left the family years ago.
The Wild Card: None, it seems.
Purpose of Trip: The family needs to get Atticus to his daughter’s wedding.
Why Can’t They Fly: Atticus just had a heart attack.
How the Parent Helps: Based on the trailer it looks like Atticus basically just helps Adam loosen up and realize he’s not that bad a guy after all.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.