It’s been too long since Mike Cahill made “King of California,” an oddball road trip film which saw Evan Rachel Wood as the put-upon daughter of mentally unwell and self-fashioned modern-day conquistador (Michael Douglas) convinced gold is buried under their home in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The year was 2007, a year after “Little Miss Sunshine” had distributors seeing gold as well with the ensuing flood of quirky comedies that were anointed by Sundance and the comparisons weren’t bound to serve “King of California” well, with the writer/director married to something a bit more abstract and darker than could be easily packaged commercially. His follow-up “Porcupine” isn’t entering into a time that’s likely to be any kinder, but clearly makes the case for a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, once against making the most of an absurdist premise to consider interpersonal dynamics with warm insight.
If Cahill were so bold, “Porcupine” could’ve actually been a sequel in broad strokes to “King of California” had he dared to cast Wood again, but instead he enlists Jena Malone as Audrey, a young woman with parents, but none she’s especially comfortable speaking with. Living on her own, she’s never needed financial support, unfazed by taking various odd jobs to get by, but the toll of having no one to share her life with is taking its toll, quite literally leaving her in the dark when her latest lover abruptly decides to leave and takes his electrical expertise with him out the door and leading her to watch viral videos of cute animals to keep her company at lunch in places where she can leech off the free wi-fi. As with any YouTube rabbit hole, Audrey is led to some curious places, first drifting towards pet adoptions and then a curious subset of testimonials from senior citizens that have taken in adult children, sharing a need to feel less alone.
When “Porcupine” opens with the intriguing admonition that “a surprising amount of what follows is true,” one has to take on faith that it isn’t as outrageous as it seems that Audrey is inspired to begin setting up dates with potential new families for herself, shuffling through an array of suitors that are mostly just content to have a visitor. Something is different, however, about meeting Sunny (Emily Kuroda) and Otto (Robert Hunger-Bühler), a couple that themselves met through the internet after the loss of their respective spouses and now take care of each other. While Sunny is happy to have another in the house, she doesn’t put Audrey in the greatest position to endear herself to Otto, already a tough nut to crack as a proud, retired German scientist loathe to waste words and has strained relations with his two biological children, and despite the fact that all Audrey wants is someone to say hello to, even that may be too much to ask.
Like “King of California,” Cahill hones in on connections in families that are built rather than bestowed at birth, watching as Audrey makes herself useful to Otto and Sunny in building a treehouse in their backyard and increasingly asserting herself as part of the household, taking care of Otto’s cantankerous mother Mutti (Jillian Lindig), all in the hopes of feeling a sense of belonging. However, her needs are never made out to be that simple, comprised of all kinds of considerations that are alluded to in the most subtle of ways and the writer/director, again, goes to great lengths to make all of his characters multi-dimensional, clearly having lived through things that have added wrinkles to their thinking that may not align naturally with common sense. (It speaks volumes that Brooke Bloom, only in the film for a handful of scenes, makes an immediate impression as Otto’s daughter who shows mild contempt for Audrey seemingly taking her place.) Among an ensemble that’s strong across the board, stellar turns from both Malone and Hunger-Bühler would make “Porcupine” unmistakably authentic on their own, but there is such care put into conveying the gentle impact that people make on one another, for better or worse and the moments they choose kindness over insularity, that the reality of the situation is never in question, though if it were, one would hope the world would look a little more like the one Cahill’s crafted.
“Porcupine” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next screen in-person at the Savannah Film Festival on October 27th and virtually from October 27th through 30th.