Playing the college-age daughter of a humorlessly uptight mother and the granddaughter of a stuck-in-the-’60s free spirit, Elizabeth Olsen gives another effortlessly natural performance. This makes her conflicted character completely convincing in Peace, Love & Misunderstanding. She’s the quiet standout in this ensemble dramedy about a citified family that learns a few things about life by going forward into the past.
Zoe (Olsen) knows her moneyed Manhattanite parents have been having marital problems. Younger brother Jake (Nat Wolff), a would-be filmmaker with video camera constantly in hand, is so unsurprised when mom Diane (Catherine Keener) announces a divorce is in the offing that his reaction is “it’s about time.” But that doesn’t mean Zoe is happy about the situation.
Diane gives them the news on their way to an extended no-dad-along stay with their estranged — and strange — grandmother Grace (Jane Fonda), a longtime resident of hippie-haven Woodstock, New York. That retro-rural burg is still as freak-flag friendly as it was in the Nixon era.
While no-fun Diane is so conservative and constricted she objects to an anti-war demonstration because “it’s disrespectful to our troops,” over-the-hill flower-child Grace takes part in similar protests every week. Grace also sells pot she grows in her basement, promiscuously practices free love and holds monthly howl-at-the-moon gatherings commemorating the lunar cycle.
Fonda teeters on the edge of making Grace too much of a cartoonish Earth mother stereotype, but the character’s unrestrained eccentricity is fun to watch. Grace also is an unabashed straight talker. She tells Diane not to be a “cock block” regarding awkward virgin Jake’s relationship with a local girl, because “Jake creates enough obstacles on his own.”
Vegan Zoe develops an opposites attraction for local butcher Cole (Gossip Girl‘s Chace Crawford), a sleepily sexy sad-eyed stud with permanent beard stubble. Besides having a job “dismembering animals,” as Zoe puts it, Cole also hunts and smokes cigarettes (but not pot, because “I like reality as it is”).
His low-key and slightly melancholy self-assurance, along with a fondness for Walt Whitman poetry, are more than enough to make up for what Zoe thinks are his flaws. Meanwhile, manly furniture maker Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) does such a good job of getting tightassed Diane to drop her defenses that she joins him for an onstage duet at a street-fair concert.
Director Bruce Beresford refreshingly lets most of the movie progress without an excess of melodrama even when recriminations arise, and the upstate New York scenery is postcard pretty. Unfortunately, screenwriters Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski insert a third-act complication that’s not only unnecessary but illogical.
A bit of history that comes as a devastating shock to one character is something so obvious the subject should have been raised much earlier. Aside from that slip, the movie is an interesting generation gap character study that manages to keep things light without seeming too insubstantial.
[Rating: 3 stars]
Peace, Love & Misunderstanding has a limited US theatrical release on Friday June 8, 2012.