After spending two years in a mental institute, Charlie (Michael Douglas) is released to go back home with his 16-year-old daughter, Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood). Through a series of confusing statements, she’s managed to live on her own for these years, convincing social services that she’s living with a parent, the parents that she’s living at a foster home, and managing to make the foster parents forget that she even exists. If ever there was a definition of “independent teenager,” she’d fit the bill.
Charlie (she refuses to call him “Dad”) has bipolar disorder, although replace that with “possibly crazy but maybe not” and you’ve got a better idea of what he acts like. He functions well, but he’s transfixed on a certain idea: Buried treasure. It exists, he believes, and instead of getting a job and supporting his daughter, he embarks on a quest to find it. Reluctantly, Miranda tags along. Why? Probably because she wants to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself or others. Secretly, she probably wants to find the treasure as well.
She still has to hold down her day job at McDonald’s, something that gets forgotten about later on in the film. At first, she goes to work and during her spare time, she helps with the hunt for gold. Eventually, that becomes the full-time dedication for both characters. They’re not good friends, and their verbal battles are intriguing, yet sad at the same time. Seeing the poor relationship between father and child is heartbreaking, or at least, I found it to be.
The plot moves briskly, taking us from location to location, before moving once again. In fact, I don’t think it spent enough time with each scene. As soon as we begin to settle in and begin enjoying this specific event, it ends. That is, except for the final major scene involving both characters, which meandered a bit. Trim that down and use the extra time to pad earlier scenes, and you cut out almost every problem I had with King of California.
For most of the film, I had a good time. Not only because it had an interesting story, but also because the characters grew on me. Off the bat, I wasn’t a big fan of either of these people. After about 15 minutes, I was. We begin in media res, with random stills with Miranda narrating for us. It sets itself up as a comedy, as her dialogue here is quite funny. This isn’t how the film turns out, even if it does have some humorous points scattered throughout. Instead, it’s more of a drama about an ill man and his daughter. The treasure is second, while the comedy is third.
I’ll explain what I mean. The treasure drives the plot; I’ve already explained that. But each scene is about the interaction between father and daughter, about how they treat one another and converse. Finding the treasure, or at least, the next step to finding it, while it’s the plot, isn’t what we’re focusing on. Making us laugh comes third in importance. You’ll laugh plenty, especially if you generally enjoy independent comedies, but the spotlight is still on these two characters.
This is Mike Cahill’s directorial debut, and I would call it a great success. He gets great performances from his primary cast, he tells a simple story that draws you in, and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. You feel for these people, you want to see them succeed in their quest to find the buried treasure, and when petty things like laws, police or Charlie’s possible insanity begin to threaten this quest, you root even harder for them to find the gold.
I will mention that if you’re turned off by real life products appearing in movies, you’ll definitely want to avoid King of California. I don’t have any problem with this, especially for films that are supposed to take place in the real world, but I know that some people do. There are entire sections that take place in stores, like Costco, I already mentioned that McDonald’s is mentioned quite often, and the pair even runs past a Chuck E Cheese’s at one point, despite it not having any relation to the story. Like I said, it doesn’t bother me, but if it does grind your gears, you’ll want to stay away from this one.
The strength of the film comes from Michael Douglas’ performance as the enigmatic Charlie. We’re never sure what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do next, and this keeps us on the edge of our seats. Douglas provides most of the film’s energy, but he doesn’t exactly play his role over-the-top. Sure, he acts crazy for most of his time on-screen, but we can understand the idea that his character is going for, and we can figure out after he has acted what his motivation is — even if we’re not quite sure why he does these things in the moment.
King of California is a very good indie comedy. It’s touching, it has good actors in solid roles, and it does pretty much everything it needs to — if sometimes a little too briefly. Product placement is frequent, and there are times when I thought it needed to spend more time on certain scenes, but I had a great time with this film. It has funny moments, sweet times, and the ending is only possible because it’s an indie film. I’ll leave you to contemplate what that means and then you should go see this film.