A review of “The Californians” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: PG for mild language

Run Time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

 

 

Henry James’ The Bostonians gets the West Coast treatment in this fetching but self-conscious environmental rambler.

Gavin Ransom (Noah Wylie) is your typical dream-big developer, starry-eyed with plans to turn the verdant California coastline into the glorious Quail Ridge Estates.

Not just any upscale development but McMansion heaven complete with Italian villas ripe with travertine marble and Mediterranean showplaces cradling cascading fountains.

Gavin is up against the usual complement of naysayers and tree-huggers, including his crunchy granola twin sis Olive (Illeana Douglas) and an idealistic songbird named Zoe Tripp (Kate Mara).

As the City Council and Open Space Coalitions battle over zoning laws and environmental issues Gavin finds himself sinking deeper into debt as he plows endless resources into the floundering Quail Ridge. 

To add insult to injury Gavin is wildly attracted to Zoe and her active calm in the face of contention. The two stand on opposite sides of the issues but their chemistry is unmistakable. The fact that Olive is equally smitten with Zoe is something akin to emotional warfare.

Stanford grad Jonathan Parker has crafted an entertaining albeit amateurish project that feels more TV-movie-of-the-week than feature film. Whereas James’ daring novel tackled human foibles and the age-old battle of the sexes Parker’s “Californians” plays like a morality tale: the Big Bad Wolf of development trying to devour the Gentle Lambs who wander the land in search of a natural Zen.

The players overact with cautious enthusiasm, a let’s-put-on-a-show bonhomie that undermines the sober side of the narrative. California herself looks picture-perfect, glowing with a sunny radiance that forgives a number of artistic flaws.