Producers: Elfar Adalsteins, David Collins and Sigurjan Sighvatsson   Director: Elfar Adalsteins   Screenplay: Michael Armbruster   Cast: John Hawkes, Logan Lerman, Sarah Bolger, Andrea Irvine, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Denis Conway, Lalor Roddy, David Grant White, Sean Malron and Mary McEvoy   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade: B

A road-trip movie about the reconciliation between a father and his estranged son might not seem the most imaginative idea in the world, but with “End of Sentence” producer-turned-director Elfar Adalsteins beats the odds and delivers a winning take on a familiar formula.

Michael Armbruster’s script opens at an Alabama prison, where a loving couple, Frank and Anna Fogle (John Hawkes and Andrea Irvine) are visiting their incarcerated son Sean (Logan Lerman), a repeated offender now behind bars for car theft.  Anna is suffering from terminal cancer, and has come to share a tearful goodbye with Sean.  Frank pointedly sits on a bench outside, a stiff, precise fellow who’s well-spoken but obviously not at ease with the young man. 

Soon after Anna’s funeral occurs, and fastidious Frank takes the urn containing her ashes to greet Sean upon his release.  His son wants nothing to do with him, intending to drive to California where a job is waiting for him.  Even Frank informs him of Anna’s last wish—that they should travel to her native Ireland and scatter her ashes in an obscure lake—the young man is resolute, until he learns that because of his rap sheet, no one will entrust him with a car to drive west.  Reluctantly he takes up Frank on his offer—which carries the revelation that Anna had left him a house in Ireland, and a promise to pay Sean’s way to California by the date his job is set to start—but is still surly toward his father, whom he dismisses as a milquetoast who never stands up for himself.

There’s some truth to that.  Frank is unfailingly courteous and quietly submissive, even when others are treating him without much respect.  He explains his placid attitude as a way of getting through life without turmoil, but Sean finds his docility revolting, especially since—as we eventually learn—his failure to take a stand on his son’s behalf at important moments was a major cause of their long estrangement. 

When they get to Ireland, Frank’s demeanor at the car rental counter—requiring an automatic transmission, buying all the insurance he can—irritates Sean, and his slow driving and insistence on stopping regularly for gas irritate him.  Frank also surprises him by saying that they will be stopping in Dublin to share a memorial visit with some of Anna’s old friends and relatives. 

That stop has two important ramifications.  Frank learns that his late wife had a reputation for wildness in her youth, and is especially obsessed with a photo showing her on a motorcycle with an attractive man.  Meanwhile Sean links up with Jewel (Sarah Bolger), a hot-to-trot Irish lass with a lovely singing voice, and insists that she join them on the road, much to Frank’s distress.

Needless to say, the trip has its share of speed bumps.  Jewel proves to be not quite the sweet girl she seems, flirting with Frank while bedding Sean, and Frank becomes intent on tracking down the man in that photograph with Anna and finding out why the lake was so important to her that she wanted her ashes scattered in it.  The twists are sometimes a might hard to swallow—this is Ireland, the country of blarney, after all—but in the end they serve as a satisfactory means of encouraging the bonding of father and son without pummeling us over the head with the message that that’s what the dead woman intended all along. 

The story, predictable overall if surprising in the details, would not have worked but not for the nuanced work of Hawkes and Lerman.  The former adds to the long list of incisive portraits of imperfect men he’s quietly built up over a career now spanning more than three decades; he makes Frank a poignant, only slightly absurd character, set in his ways until—of course—he literally takes a leap at the close.  Lerman, who was always rather spindly and sheepish in his earlier roles, now appears all buff and grown up as Sean, playing off his macho attitude expertly against Hawkes’ recessive character.  Jewel adds a charge of seductive, amoral energy to the proceedings, and the rest of the cast add color and enthusiasm to their roles.

It’s entirely to be expected that Karl Oskarson’s cinematography would be a star of the picture too, employing the lovely Irish locations to fine effect.  Expert work also comes from production designer Ray Ball and editor Kristjan Lodmfjord. Though the latter’s handling of a couple of actions scenes—an encounter with a couple of junkyard dogs, a chase on a ferry—could be smoother, though the original footage was probably the problem.  Petur Benediktsson contributes an evocative score, with a couple of songs adding to the atmosphere.

This is the first feature directed by Adalsteins, but it indicates that his earlier work as a producer has provided good training for the job.   This is a “Sentence” most viewers will be happy to have served.