Savages (2007): Tamara Jenkins Tale of Dysfunctional Family, Starring Laura Linney

At the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where the writer-director Tamara Jenkins second feature, The Savages, had its world premiere in January, dysfunctional families are the norm, rather than exception.

Jenkinss film, which stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as bickering siblings forced to care for their semi-estranged, dementia-stricken father (Philip Bosco), was praised for its wit and maturity. Devoid of the quirks and sappiness that increasingly typify American indie cinema, the film captures the sorrow, anxiety and sheer disruptive tumult involved in dealing with aging, dying parents, a subject avoided by mainstream Hollywood.

Its something that everybody feels or thinks about, Jenkins said. But in her experience it sort of happens outside the community, off the grid, she said. You go off and deal with this death thing, or this nursing-home-transition thing.

Its an experience that Jenkins, 45, went through in her mid-30s, when her father was admitted to a nursing home at the end of his life. My father was 20 years older than my mother, so I was relatively young, she said. None of my peers had really been through that. Their parents werent that old.

This was 10 years ago, before the demographic of aging boomers led to the growth of advice on the care of their parents. I remember it being kind of isolating, she said. But as a writer who gravitates to primal situations where youre unafraid of etiquette, because there is none, she also recognized a subject matter that was this great laboratory for human behavior.

Theres no rule book, she continued, on how to behave when confronted with death. It irks her that films often presume there is one. You see movies with tragic death scenes where everyones sort of noble and can handle it, and I just dont buy it, she said.

Jon and Wendy Savage, the films siblings, are both far from noble. Theyre self-absorbed and fallible. Confronting the mortality of a parent has only made their own creeping midlife disappointments harder to ignore. Hes a drama professor in Buffalo; shes a struggling playwright in Manhattan. That they work in the same field only brings a competitive prickliness to their interactions.

For her first feature, Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), a darkly funny account of growing up broke and nomadic on the fringes of moneyed Los Angeles, Jenkins mined her teenage years. After her parents divorced, her father, a car salesman and former nightclub owner, took custody of her and her three brothers.

For The Savages, which opens on Nov. 28, she drew again on her family. One of her brothers, Ron Jenkins, is a professor of theater at Wesleyan University; Ms. Jenkins got her start in the downtown New York theater world. I feel kind of greedy when Im writing, just searching for stuff, she said. But its not truly autobiographical. Its sort of an inverted version. I remember thinking: My brother and I, were the lucky ones. But what if we were unlucky and turned ourselves inside out and were these warring siblings In a wince-inducing moment in The Savages Wendy lies to Jon about having won a Guggenheim fellowship. Both Jenkins and her brother have in fact been awarded Guggenheims.

It was a wonderfully demanding part, Linney said of Wendy, whom she called spastic and yet capable of great stealth and who suggests a less stable version of the tightly wound sister she played in another indie drama, Kenneth Lonergans You Can Count on Me. The extremes of the character are very far apart, which gave me a lot of room in between.

As for the irascible father, played with a remarkable lack of vanity by Phillip Bosco, the theater veteran, hes hardly a paternal figure. Hes not a grouch with a twinkle in his eye, Jenkins said. I couldnt have handled a cute old man.

The most notable characteristic of Jenkinss writing is its blend of poignancy and dark comedy, both of which she locates in her characters foibles. She explained: Someone asked me at a film festival, Your screenplay is funny and sad, so do you do a sad pass and then go back and do the funny And I was, like, I dont think it works that way.

The bittersweet voice may come naturally to Ms. Jenkins, but in the case of this film it didnt come quickly. In the nine-year gap between her features Its like Terrence Malick without the masterpieces, she joked she put in some time on an eventually abandoned screenplay about Diane Arbus. She also took on rewrite jobs, published essays about art and worked on sex-education films and public-service announcements.

Intermittently she took notes for The Savages, observing the goings-on at a nursing home down the street from her apartment and consulting the elder-care section at Barnes & Noble.

In 2002, Jenkins married Jim Taylor, the writing and producing partner of the director Alexander Payne; they shared a screenwriting Oscar for the 2004 critics favorite Sideways. But in lieu of a honeymoon she went to Yaddo, the artists colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., hoping to turn her notebooks into a screenplay.