Review: A Father and Daughter Embark on a Trip Though Poland—and Family History—in Treasure

For reasons I’m not even clear on, I have a tendency to respond well to road trip movies in which at least one of the travelers is examining history, whether it’s their own history or the history of someone they care about. In the case of the 1990s-set Treasure, we follow Ruth (Lena Dunham) as she reunites with her Polish Holocaust-survivor father Edek (Stephen Fry) in Poland. Ruth was raised by Edek in New York, and she’s since become a fairly successful music journalist (which results in her father telling anyone they run into on their trip that his daughter is rich and famous, when she most decidedly is not). Their relationship has been strained since the death of her mother, Edek’s wife, and she’s hoping that this journey through Edek’s past will help mend some of their troubles, even if she has to force the issue, which she seems more than willing to do.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Lily Brett, co-adapted by John Quester and German-born director Julia von Heinz, Treasure is set in a time in eastern Europe right after socialism collapsed, marking the first time Americans could travel freely in the region. Edek was never eager to go back, but because he wants to make his daughter as happy as she’s capable of being, he agrees to go, and things get off to a rousing start with him missing his flight from New York for the dumbest of reasons. She’s planned this trip down to the minute, and Edek immediately throws a wrench in the works. She wants to take the train from city to city; he meets a sympathetic cab driver named Stefan (Zbigniew Zamachowski), and they use his services for the entire time they’re in Poland. Being the charming and stubborn man that he is, Edek makes friends along the way, tips far too much money to look like a big shot, and resists reliving trauma from his childhood, yet still going through with it for his daughter’s sake.

A couple of sequences—one involving going back to the apartment where he was born, another revolving around returning to Auschwitz—actually dive into the specificity of the times. When the family living in the apartment today turns out to still have some of Edek’s family’s furniture and dishes and other heirlooms, his reaction is almost primal and makes him want to flee the situation. To be clear, the filmmakers didn’t hire Dunham and Fry to make an unflinching drama; Treasure is quite funny throughout, especially when it comes to the culture clashes in which the father and daughter frequently engage. Ruth is a modern woman, but she can be driven to extremes to make her point. Edek goes where the wind takes him, except when he doesn’t want to go. He’s also the most passively persuasive person in existence, because no one seems to be able to tell him no—which drives Ruth insane.

The film isn’t strictly a movie about Holocaust survivors, but it does make it clear that while the loss of so many family members during World War II has shaped Edek, he has chosen to embrace every day he lives, as a way of honoring those who didn’t survive. The film has its awkward moments, as well, and I don’t think all of them are deliberate. Dunham plays Ruth as almost too resistant to her father’s idea and needs, and her performance comes across as stiff more often than not. And the final third of Treasure feels like it meanders too much when it should be looking for a safe and moving place to land. I realize that life is messy, and simply wrapping this story up neatly wouldn’t serve it well either, but somewhere between neat and poignant would have been appreciated. Still, I was never bored watching these two people looking for a home, both in Poland and within each other’s lives. The film is capable of being quite moving, even between the laughs, and I appreciated getting to know these two lost souls trying to find connection.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.