February 22, 2020

Films: Dementia ordeal inspires comic tale of ‘The Savages’

Tamara Jenkins knows firsthand what an overwhelming task it is to care for a parent suffering from dementia. While she was in her mid-30s, she had to help care for both her father and grandmother during their final days in a nursing home.

She also knows that no matter how grave a situation might be, there are always sparks of humor surrounding it. So it’s no surprise that her new film, “The Savages,” addresses that very subject and does so with a healthy dose of comic perspective.

“I think it’s a natural sensibility of mine,” the writer-director said. “And I do think that on the underside of tragedy there is this human farce there at the same time. People are pushed to such extremes, and since they’re sort of doggy paddling through the situation, they often don’t know how to behave. I think that sometimes the behavior is unknowingly kinetic because they’re so frayed.”

“The Savages” tells the story of middle-aged siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage, who are suddenly forced to care for their estranged father, Lenny, who is left homeless after his girlfriend of 20 years dies. To compound matters, Lenny is sinking further into dementia and can no longer care for himself, leaving them in charge of finding a suitable rest home where he can be properly looked after. Once they do, Wendy handles the chore of taking her father cross-country from New York to Arizona.

Although the situation mirrors much of her own experiences, Jenkins points out this is not an autobiographical story.

“My experience was not exactly like what Jon and Wendy go through,” Jenkins said. “I had three other siblings — I’m not from Buffalo, and I never went to Sun City [the Arizona rest home]. I did fly my father across country, not unlike the movie, and that became a central theme because I didn’t realize the gravity of the task when I said, ‘OK, we’ll take dad across the country.’ And it wasn’t until I did it that it became clear to me that I really wasn’t equipped to handle the intensity of the task, that I was taking care of this person that needed help on such a level that I didn’t understand. So thematically that became a big part of the movie.”

The catalyst for Jenkins writing her script for “The Savages” was what she saw happening around her several years after her own ordeal.

“What helped bring it to the surface was suddenly my friends started going through this thing that for me happened in isolation, and it then became very relevant,” Jenkins revealed.