An ambling father-daughter road trip through ‘90s Poland, Julia von Heinz’s Treasure is an odd hybrid. On one side it’s a meandering portrait of a father (Stephen Fry’s Edek) and daughter (Lena Dunham’s Ruth) reconnecting after the death of her mother. To which end it’s the type of tragicomedy Sundance used to pump out at a relatively fast pace: both inoffensive and more than a little bland. On the other side Treasure is, somewhat explicitly, a portrait of the collective trauma of the Holocaust.

Ruth treks to Poland to revisit the scenes of her family’s experiences in the lead-up and during their imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau. An unhappy journalist living in New York, she wants to know more about her family. Not wanting to have his daughter visit these sites alone, Edek comes along but is also––quite obviously for everyone that isn’t Ruth––dealing with the lingering trauma of being the only one in his family to make it out of the camp alive. From there the two essentially cross-talk at each other, with Ruth looking painfully unaware. An early scene where she books them train tickets, only for Edek to nervously suggest they take a taxi instead, is obvious in its implications, but Ruth is just exasperated at her father. 

It’s not a good look, one that is hammered home (ad nauseam) in various interactions between them. Ruth wants to visit Edek’s old home, only for Edek to insist they only look at it from the outside. When she busts her way into the house, she meets the family that moved in after Edek and his own were forcibly removed. Visibly uncomfortable, Edek is nevertheless forced to talk with this family, all while being served tea in the cups his mother used to own.

If those two pieces sound incongruous, the result only suggests Treasure is ill-equipped to graft a maudlin story of a family reconnecting onto the collective trauma of mass extinction. While this type of narrative has worked before, notably in Everything Is Illuminated, von Heinz feels unwilling to truly explore Edek’s history, and entirely devoting to a narrative in the ‘90s distances the stories Edek is telling. 

In that, Treasure is one of the weirder miscalculations from recent memory. It relies on the easily telegraphed characterizations of its two leads: Edek is a vibrant, emotionally distant father; Ruth is stuck in a type of arrested development because of her father’s inability to talk about the past. But these melodramatic scenes play out against the backdrop of Auschwitz-Birkenau––sometimes quite literally, as with a late scene set at the camp.

Despite lingering critiques of her earlier work, Dunham has successfully shaken off the high-strung millennial-ness of Girls in her recent directorial output, which makes the regression into unlikability here all the stranger. Imagine Hannah Horvath in ‘90s Poland and you essentially get the gist of her performance. A painfully underdeveloped subplot about Ruth self-harming through a homemade tattoo that very obviously recalls the numbers grafted on camp prisoners seems to suggest something about this character. But it’s never quite elaborated. As with much herein, we get indications of a bigger narrative bursting in the periphery but––whether from an underdeveloped script or a complicated edit––things are seemingly left out. 

Fry’s Edek is much more sympathetic, but the actor is saddled with a character who the film treats as too one-note. His boisterous personality belies a deep-seated depression and unwillingness to confront the past. Though fair, we never get the indication of gradual change for him. Instead a shift towards understanding his daughter’s intentions for the trip comes, frankly, out of nowhere, just as credits are about to roll. Little is telegraphed here. 

The exploration of a survivor and their child navigating post-Soviet Poland is, on the surface, compelling, but Treasure doesn’t seem capable of threading the needle between a micro portrait of generational trauma and macro, collective trauma that is omnipresent throughout Poland in this era. While there’s little truly dreadful at work, the film cannot bear the weight of competing interests.

Treasure opens on Friday, June 14.

Grade: C-

No more articles