Dir/scr: Tamara Jenkins. US. 2007. 113mins.

The story of a brother and sister forced to care for their mentally diminished father, Tamara Jenkins's second feature The Savages examines with sensitivity, intelligence and jolting observation the vicissitudes of suffering, loss and human frailty.

It's a serious work sharpened by prickly humour, strong writing, excellent direction and magnificent acting in the powerhouse central performances of Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and the anguished, beautifully calibrated work of Oscar-nominated Laura Linney.

They play emotionally cautious professionals whose tense reconciliation with their father unleashes a torrent of buried resentments and harsh childhood traumas.

The movie is only marred by a coda that feels strangely antithetical to the bulk of the work. Debuting in the premiere section at Sundance, the Fox Searchlight release is the kind of gutsy, tonally ambitious chamber piece the company has previously marketed and distributed with strong results (Sideways, Thank You for Smoking).

The movie also recalls other Linney Sundance projects such as You Can Count On Me and The Squid and the Whale. The company is still preparing a release date. Internationally Hoffman's surging profile from his Best Actor Oscar for Capote is likely to increase the movie's exposure in Western Europe and other English speaking countries.

DVD and cable revenues are likely strong players. Jenkins's second feature marks a significant stylistic and technical advance on her debut work The Slums of Beverly Hills. In conjunction with the talented cinematographer Mott Hupfel (The Notorius Bettie Page) constructs the material as a series of complicated, interlocking visual patterns that continually echo in fascinating, unexpected ways.

The bright, satirical thrusts of the opening passages set in an Arizona desert community are immediately set against the cramped, darker sections in Buffalo, New York that anchor the story. The doubling is also made explicit by the family dynamics, the two siblings drawn as iterations of each other.

Jon Savage (Hoffman) is a 42-year-old university theater professor writing a book on Brecht. His 39-year-old sister Wendy (Linney) is an aspiring playwright who supports herself working desultory temporary office jobs. Both are also subtly unhinged by their romantic attachments.

He is withdrawn, detached from his devoted Polish lover (Seymour), and she is locked in a fairly desperate, unhappy affair with a married neighbor (Akinnagbe) from her Manhattan apartment building. Their rushed, complicated lives are suddenly blown to smithereens by the unwelcome imposition of their father, 75-year-old Lenny (Bosco), his mind now ravaged by Parkinson's inflected dementia.

His condition mandates the two place him in a Buffalo-based nursing facility. The father's reappearance only aggravates Wendy's sense of guilt and disavowal and Jon's barely repressed anger and helplessness. Jenkins continually paints stark, dramatic images of loss of freedom, most painfully on an airplane when Lenny is strapped into a gurney, or more comically, when Jon is forced to wear an elaborate neck device to alleviate his own physical pain.

As Lenny retreats deeper into his flayed consciousness, The Savages evolves into a painful, liberating study of aging, loneliness and disruption. Hoffman is cutting, imperious, suggesting in his subtle body movements his aggrieved entitlement. His major moment outside an upscale nursing facility decrying the way the imminent breakdown and death of parents is astonishing in its lucid fury.

As impressive as Hoffman is, Linney dominates the film. She proves that she is one of the finest American actors working. She is fearless, funny and explosive, unafraid of reveling her shame, humiliation or embarrassment, whether suddenly recoiling from her failed lust for a Nigerian hospital aid worker or expressing the ridiculousness of her increasingly tawdry alliances with her married lover.

'I have an MFA,' she says during one assignation at a hotel. In a difficult part, Bosco is also very fine, unsparing and selfish. Technically The Savages is note perfect. Hupfel's cinematography is direct, precise and unsparing. Jane Ann Stewart's production design is smart and involving in detailing the emotionally restricted lives of its protagonists.

Production companies/backers
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Lone Star Film Group
This Is That Production
Ad Hominem Enterprises

US distribution
Fox Searchlight

Ted Hope
Anne Carey
Erica Westheimer

Executive producers
Alexander Payne
Jim Taylor
Jim Burke
Anthony Bregman
Fred Westheimer

Brian A Kates

Production design
Jane Ann Stewart

Stephen Trask

Main cast
Laura Linney
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Bosco
Peter Friedman
Gbenga Akinnagbe
Cara Seymour