The Tribes of Palos Verdes

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Tribes of Palos Verdes Movie Poster Image
Melancholy coming-of-age drama tackles tough topics.
  • R
  • 2017
  • 104 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The positive messages are related to the movie's cautionary-tale aspects. From that angle, it encourages teens and kids who feel helpless and depressed about their family situation to seek a trusted adult in the community to reach out to, even if that's hard or scary to do. Explores the dangers of substance abuse and how divorce and mental illness affect more than the individuals going through them. The twins show how close siblings can be and how important honesty is in family relationships.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Few role models in the movie -- most characters are flawed, and many make huge mistakes -- but Medina perseveres despite the various hardships in her life. Adrian is patient and loving toward Medina.


An initially consensual make-out session (although she's underage, so it would be construed as statutory rape) turns into a near-sexual assault, and the young woman must push the older man away. A character overdoses and (spoiler alert) later dies, presumably from an overdose. A surfer "gang" threatens outsiders who want to surf in "their" spot; a few of them get in people's faces and, in one case, punch a guy. A woman angrily throws a tennis ball toward her estranged ex.


Teen couples shown kissing/making out. One love scene between two teenagers -- bare backs and underwear seen. A man is clearly having an affair (offscreen).


Frequent strong language: "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "f----r," "bitch," etc.


Mercedes, Volvo, Jeep. Consumerism plays a big role in the community.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Underage drinking (mostly beer) and somewhat pervasive drug use that leads to a hospitalization and (spoiler alert) a death via overdose. Adults also drink and smoke cigarettes. Discussion and close-ups of prescription drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Tribes of Palos Verdes is based on Joy Nicholson's critically acclaimed 1997 coming-of-age novel about teen twins who move to a fancy oceanfront community in Southern California. Starring Jennifer Garner and Maika Monroe, the movie may appeal to teens who enjoy family dramas, but it's the sort of melancholy character study that tackles a host of heavy themes, including addiction, adultery, depression, divorce, and sexual assault. There's lots of strong language ("f--k," "bitch," "a--hole," "d--k," etc.) as well as quite a bit of drug use (from recreational party drugs to hardcore, addictive drugs), some sexuality, and one make-out scene that quickly turns from consensual to nonconsensual but stops short of rape. (Spoiler alert: A key character dies.)

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What's the story?

Based on author Joy Nicholson's 1997 coming-of-age novel, THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES centers on introverted teen Medina Mason (Maika Monroe), whose family moves from Michigan to a posh oceanfront Southern California community. Medina's father, Phil (Justin Kirk), is a cardiologist who's excited to be a heart doctor to the stars, but her moody mom, Sandy (Jennifer Garner), can't stand how "plastic" and "fake" everyone is in their new neighborhood. While Medina discovers the joys of surfing, she remains quiet at school, whereas her twin brother, Jim (Cody Fern), quickly joins the popular crowd. Things take a terrible turn when Phil leaves the family and Sandy has a breakdown, relying on Jim to be her emotional support. Medina, meanwhile, just wants to escape into the surf.

Is it any good?

This atmospheric coming-of-age adaptation explores difficult themes and features noteworthy performances but comes up a little short. Monroe plays Medina believably well, in a manner reminiscent of a younger Kristen Stewart. Fern also gives a nuanced performance as Medina's twin, Jim, who feels torn between supporting his emotionally fragile, mentally ill mother and just wanting to be a regular teen who hangs out with his friends. And Garner, for once, doesn't play a sweet Type-A mom. It's a surprising performance, full of rage and desperation. The word "bipolar" is never said, but it's clear that Sandy swings between manic highs and debilitating lows.

Ultimately, however, this is Medina's story of dealing with her family's dissolution, discovering a new passion (surfing), experiencing first love, and feeling distanced from her twin brother for the first time in her life. There's not much of a plot here; in some ways, the story is more like a series of character vignettes -- each person in the Mason family has a different arc that leaves them irreversibly changed after moving to the seemingly perfect neighborhood of Palos Verdes. This isn't a feel-good film, but moviegoers who appreciate well-acted family dramas will appreciate it.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether there are any role models in The Tribes of Palos Verdes. If so, what character strengths do they -- or should they -- exhibit?

  • How is substance use/abuse depicted in the movie? What are the consequences, as shown in the film?

  • Discuss which of the relationships portrayed in the movie are healthy, and which are unhealthy. Why?

  • How does the movie depict potential mental illness? Does it seem realistic? Sympathetic?

Movie details

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Themes & Topics

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