The Discoverers

“If history is written by the winners, what happens to the rest of us?” That’s what history professor Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) wants to know in “The Discoverers,” a clumsy but affectionate dramedy about a man trying to reconcile with his family and determine what kind of legacy he’s leaving behind. The rather on-the-nose quotation I just gave comprises the very first words spoken in the movie, which makes it even more on the nose. Like I said, clumsy, but the movie’s heart is in the right place.

We meet Lewis Birch at a disorganized time in his life, when he’s teaching part-time at a Chicago community college after falling from a lofty university position due to his own screw-ups. He’s newly divorced, too, for what we gather are similar reasons. His dopey 17-year-old son Jack (Devon Graye) and adult-acting 15-year-old daughter Zoe (an excellent Madeleine Martin) treat him with a teenage mixture of disdain and pity, but they’re game enough to join him on a weeklong vacation to Oregon, where Lewis is presenting a paper at a history conference.

These plans are derailed when Lewis’ aged mother passes away, leaving no one but Lewis to deal with his bitter, slightly insane father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), a “misanthrope with a musket” whose life revolves around Lewis and Clark reenactment hikes. Lewis and his brother, Bill (John C. McGinley), grew up with this stuff (and were named after Meriweather Lewis and William Clark), and it’s a major part of the reason Bill wants no part in caring for Stanley now.

Through a series of contrivances (including grief-induced catatonia) and taking much longer than it should, the movie arrives at its real premise: Lewis, Jack, and Zoe need to accompany Stanley — who the kids didn’t know existed till this week — on one of these “discovery treks,” as they’re known. Led by an amusingly enthusiastic role-player named Cyrus Marshall (David Rasche), they join a small group of people in period clothes in the woods for a few days. Lewis has to sort things out with his father, bond with his kids, and still get to Oregon before the conference is over.

Written and directed by first-timer Justin Schwarz, “The Discoverers” has the form an urbane indie dramedy about a disheveled academic’s existential and family crises — something in the vein of “Wonder Boys” or “The Squid and the Whale” — but in content is much more lightweight and unpolished. Besides spending a third of its running time meandering before it gets to the premise, the film also includes an oddly detailed tangent where Zoe gets her period and Lewis is ill-equipped to help her. There’s also a halfhearted effort to give Jack some romantic intrigue on the trek, which only serves to underscore the character’s superfluousness.

On the other hand, Zoe is a pistol, a good match for her scholarly father and a sounding board for his chaotic thought process. She’s a vegan, an outspoken critic of gender bias (don’t even get her started on Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea), and a chip off the old block. The menstrual subplot is ineffective, but the idea of a movie all about Lewis and Zoe is appealing — more so than the one about Lewis reconciling with his own father.

What’s strange is that except for a brief flurry of F-words and some pot smoking, this could be a PG sort of family film. It has the kind of warmhearted humor and low-stakes conflicts that play well at heartland film festivals. Instead, it’s a middling but upbeat entry in the canon of forgettable (but pleasant!) independent comedies.

C+ (1 hr., 44 min.; Not Rated, would be R for a handful of F-words and some pot smoking.)

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