Dir/scr: Mike Cahill. US. 2007. 93mins.
A bittersweet comic fable, Mike Cahill's debut feature King of California navigates a quixotic emotional register perched between fantasy and delusion that imagines a sweetly anarchic world where adolescent desire for normality and adult hope for grandeur clash by night. It features a lovely, understated performance by the luminous Rachel Evan Wood as a teenager whose wayward father, played by Michael Douglas, drafts her into his bizarre plot to locate a lost treasure.

The movie's gentle, humanist appreciation of the colorful outsider summons an exciting period in American film history, the influences and references ranging from Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud and The Long Goodbye to Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a movie produced by Douglas). Like those works, King of California displays a flagrant mistrust of authority and social conformity. The absence of easy putdown or moralizing leaves a gracious, low-key imprint.

The danger of constantly citing other works is running the risk of unfair comparisons. The movie struggles to find a unifying voice and tone, and results in a work that feels emotionally and artistically unmoored.

First Look acquired the domestic distribution rights for a reported $3m at Sundance, where the movie debuted in the premiere section. Douglas and Wood give the movie some recognizable names, though Douglas ' box office appeal has declined steadily since his last significant commercial appearance in Steven Soderbergh's Academy Award-winning Traffic more than six years ago. Wood's been great in smaller films (Pretty Persuasion) with limited commercial appeal.

The movie's likely to be limited to specialized theatrical bookings, and it should make a bigger dent in home viewing markets, especially DVD. International markets are also likely limited to non-theatrical sources.

The movie appends the loose, relaxed and spontaneous portraits of starry eyed California dreamers and disillusioned hipsters (like Forman's Czech countryman Ivan Passer's great Cutter's Way) to a more comically inflected portrait of the modern family gone dangerously astray, like Thirteen and Little Miss Sunshine. The story's narrated by Miranda (Wood), a resourceful, grounded 16-year-old.

The toughest, sharpest feelings are her buried recollections of a painful childhood, the break up of her parents' marriage or her intervention in preventing her father's suicide attempt. These memories are unleashed following Charlie's reappearance after having just spent two years in an institutional mental health facility.

Charlie, an itinerant musician, is an inveterate dreamer incapable of pursuing a straight life. His presence immediately ruptures Miranda's attempts at maintaining a responsible, stable life. Alarmed that his uncorrupted neighborhood is now under siege by developers, Charlie is obsessed with a 17th century Spanish explorer, and becomes certain he has discovered the source of a vast buried gold treasure.

The idea has promised, steeped in class and social envy. Unfortunately the young director and writer Cahill appears conflicted over which story he privileges. Miranda's point of view is increasingly submerged by the increasingly outlandish and criminal enterprises of Charlie's ill-gotten scheme. In the attempt to legitimize Charlie's actions, the movie sentimentalizes him to the point the character is drained of any interest or flamboyance.

In straining for comic episodes, her awkward appearance at a supervisor's beach party or an overextended police chase of his accomplice (Wilks II), King of California settles into a too familiar groove.

The fairly standard caper movie that evolves from the scenario forfeits the more expressive internal dynamics of the central relationship of Miranda and Charlie. The movie is technically accomplished, particularly the detached, wry cinematography by Jim Whitaker (Thank You for Smoking).

Wood is graceful and serene, though Douglas is a little too mannered. King of California aims for the effervescent and buoyant, and it never quite gains lift, remaining too earthbound and standard.

Production companies/backers
Emmett/Furla Films
Lone Star Film Group
Michael London Productions
Millennium Films

US distribution
First Look Features

Randall Emmett
George Furla
Avi Lerner
Michael London
Alexander Payne
John Thompson

Executive producers
Boaz Davidson
Danny Dimbort
Elisa Salinas
Trevor Short

Jim Whitaker

Glenn Garland

Production design
Dan Bishop

David Robbins

Main cast
Michael Douglas
Evan Rachel Wood
Willis Burks II
Laura Kachergus
Anna Khaja