“Sam & Kate” is a family affair, which is essentially the entire conceit for the film’s existence. Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek play Bill and Tina, while Jake Hoffman and Schuyler Fisk (Spacek’s daughter with production designer Jack Fisk) play their respective kids, Sam and Kate. It’s the story of young adults and their challenging relationships with their quirky aging parents, fumbling toward a kind of grace in spite of their pasts.
The appeal of the film is its gimmick: watching two legendary actors who defined New Hollywood in the 1970s playing parents to their own children and the unique chemistry that comes from that. It also helps that the kids look a lot like their parents.
But Hoffman and Fisk aren’t carbon copies of their parents, and neither have their careers. Both have been acting since childhood, but Hoffman has gone the indie route, having directed the feature “Asthma,” while also appearing in such films as “Wolf of Wall Street.” Fisk was somewhat of a Y2K ingenue, starring in “Snow Day” and “Orange County,” before pursuing a music career in the mid-aughts and slowly returning to acting in the past few years.
It’s also a family affair behind the scenes, as “Sam & Kate” is the directorial debut of actor and painter Darren Le Gallo, who is married to Amy Adams, who serves as executive producer on the film. Le Gallo wrote and directed “Sam & Kate,” which has a low-key, understated energy, melancholy tone and languid pace, slowly, eventually, making its way to the point.
One has to wonder if Le Gallo’s idea for the film was to put these actors together with a few plot points (and an idea to incorporate Fisk’s musical talents) and then let them improvise the entire thing, because the script does not give the cast much to work with, and the internal structure of each scene feels flabby and disorganized.
Crafted in a slightly different register (with more light, color and humor), this story could work as an easily digestible holiday movie (and frankly, that version sounds more fun). Sam has recently returned home to his small town, leaving behind a career in comic books, to care for his ornery father Bill. He works at a chocolate factory and otherwise gets stoned and sketches.
On Christmas Eve, he spots Kate in the window of her bookshop and instantly falls hard; his awkward flirting doesn’t get him very far, but he and Bill always seem to be there when Kate and Tina are in a pinch, needing a ride home from church or offering to fix Kate’s car in exchange for a home-cooked meal.
In one of those classic rom-com tropes, it seems like months pass, but it’s only New Year’s Eve by the time Sam ropes the cagey Kate into a roller-skating date (although the week between Christmas and New Years’ does seem longer than usual). Despite her mysterious hang-ups, Sam and Kate start a halting but sweet romance. Bill and Tina seem destined for the same outcome, enjoying a New Year’s dinner date, but Tina’s got secrets of her own, and Bill’s failing health and grief over losing his wife dooms the relationship before it starts.
Part of the message of “Sam & Kate” deals with people learning to extricate themselves from their parent’s issues, which can be hard if you’re living with them or otherwise in close proximity. But not everything can be blamed on dear old mom and dad, and the second half of that lesson is getting over your own baggage in order to show up for the right person.
These lessons are all fine and good, but it takes well over an hour into the 110-minute run time for “Sam & Kate” to reveal any conflict worth paying attention to. That first hour is a meandering mope fest of Sam asking for Kate’s number and getting turned down. But then we finally get to the interesting stuff, the treatment is simply bizarre. Music cues and camera movements tell us something is dark or foreboding, thematically, but what’s then revealed isn’t all that shocking, and the characters’ outsize reactions to those reveals make little sense.
It’s clear in the aesthetically and emotionally stripped-down “Sam & Kate” that Le Gallo is going for something that resonates as achingly human and authentic in his treatment of the challenges and obstacles that people face in everyday life, often through stoicism or shutting down. Fisk and Hoffman (the younger) make a fine pair on screen with a natural chemistry; it’s nice to see her back in a romantic leading role. You just wish the two had more substantive material to work with. In fact, the Hallmark holiday version of this film would likely have been more entertaining, or at least shorter.
“Sam & Kate” opens in US theaters Nov. 11 via Vertical Releasing.