The Savages

A bookend year

"We are not in a Sam Shepard play." Jon to Wendy

They might as well be in a Shepard drama of broken families and buried children, for these two middle-aged children of an aging, abusive father now must face their estrangement from him and themselves as they put him into a nursing home. Nothing in this satisfying coming-of-middle-age drama/comedy rings untrue, from learning to know a sibling you should have known over the last forty years to treating an ailing dad better than he treated you for those years.

Because I faced the unsettling decision of the nursing home for my mother, I give writer/director Tamara Jenkins high praise for the insight that the fancier the home, the more you are projecting yourself , not your parent, who could do with the basics lovingly applied. Not the only truth in the film, however, because the whole notion of life decisions made for another with the consultation of a sibling is fraught with little mine fields, subtly and accurately acted by Laura Linney as Wendy and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon. Praise goes again to director Jenkins, who smartly has her actors underplay what could be scenery-chewing parts.

Comparisons should be made this year with Away From Her, the Julie Christie vehicle about a lady slipping into Alzheimer's. These two films are bookends of the nursing home experience: Away From Her gently shows the goodness of the process, albeit a loving husband losing his wife to another man; Savages shows the messy confrontation of mortality and family in a setting that simply cannot be anything but coldly impersonal. Two views, as comprehensive as could be on film, of growing old and giving way.

Julie Christie may win the Oscar, but Linney and Hoffman take the ensemble prize. Be prepared to be uncomfortable: There's only so much a nursing home can offer a troubled family.