There are films that are great because they treat upon deep human truths with passion and sensitivity. There are films that a great because they engage with the language of filmmaking and broaden the vocabulary of the cinema. Then, there are films that are really rather good, solely because they have a luminescent performance anchoring an otherwise indifferent project.

King of California has not one, but two such performances. It is not high art, but it is better than just any old bland little nice movie due to the extraordinary work of its central duo: Evan Rachel Wood and Michael Douglas, as an embittered teenager working herself to a frazzle in suburban Los Angeles, and her wild-eyed, wild-haired father, hot on the trail of centuries-old Spanish gold and fresh from a mental institution.

By any yardstick you would care to use, these are two very good actors in general, and while neither of them is at there all-time best here, they're both extremely close. Wood, for her part, gets to play to her strengths in all the ways that Across the Universe didn't allow for: I tend to think that at her best, the actress seems to perpetually teeter between being so frustrated that she breaks down and cries, and being so frustrated that she breaks down and hits the other characters in the face with an axe. This performance, especially in the first half of the film, shows better than just about any of her other roles I can think of how well she captures that angry vulnerability that, as far as I am aware, no other actor of her generation does nearly so well.

But it's Michael Douglas who steals every single frame that he occupies, and to explain why I shall have to resort to a plot synopsis: this film is about Miranda (Wood), a 16-year-old whose mother left years ago and whose father has spent two years in a mental institution after trying to hang himself (leaving the girl to find him). After spending all that time watching the orange grove surrounding their isolated home turn into a field of indistinguishable houses and chain stores, Charlie (Douglas) returns, with a crazy beard and bright eyes and a copy of a 17th Century monk's diary of an ill-fated gold train that was lost somewhere in the valley. He convinces Miranda to help him follow the train's ancient path from backyard to golf courses to the site of a brand-new Costco, restoring her joie de vivre even as he costs her a job and a house.

Let's not mince words: Charlie is a deranged and perhaps dangerous figure on paper, destabilising the decidedly nontraditional but clearly functional life that Miranda has scraped together for herself. Douglas's performance doesn't hide that fact, exactly, but nor does he foreground it. Douglas plays Charlie as an enthusiast: he is at once all of naïve, innocent, playful, and none of them. Never for a moment does the actor of the film make the mistake of going for the invariably dreadful "crazy people are the only sane ones" card, but Douglas is so magnetic a personality that we simply must like him. I cannot help but hear echoes of James Norton, Emperor of the United States, or James Reavis, Baron of Arizona, in the title King of California: the former a well-loved character on the streets of San Francisco and the latter a scalawag who was turned into a charming trickster by Sam Fuller in a 1950 film; like Charlie, both men had a dangerous edge to them that was swallowed up by their personality and turned into something positive. Without Douglas, I cannot imagine this film being anything but sour sentimentality; with him, it is a delicate but completely successful story of a family beating the uncaring world.

"Sour sentimentality" doesn't really get it right, though. Without those actors, this would be a rather dodgy and smug indie satire, if anything. I'll give writer-director Mike Cahill this much credit: he is not afraid of pointed specificity in skewering the suburban landscape. Costco and McDonald's and PetSmart and Applebee's are all given supporting roles in the story, in place of the hyper-generic stores that usually end up in low-budget (or hell, big-budget) movies, not simply their familiar iconography, but as stand-ins for what they represent: an impersonal way of living for people who haven't much in the way of imagination. Even in the context of Douglas's attractive performance, it's hard not to be won over even more by Charlie's bubbly enthusiasm for the seemingly endless aisles of everything you might want to buy at a Costco; his reaction is contrasted sharply to the dull suburbanites who mill around the store and call full attention to its industrial warehouse elements (it helps that Charlie's scenes are all lit and framed to keep the most grotesque visual elements of the club store experience out of sight and mind).

But honestly, does the world really need another indie comedy satire of the suburban lifestyle? Even giving the film points for not taking place in New Jersey (I swear to God, I can die happy without ever seeing another film about how artificial life is in suburban New Jersey), I don't see how anybody who might see a film like King of California needs another object lesson in the materialist, consumer hell of the strip-mall and the chain-restaurant and the residential development. I can't help but recall that Evan Rachel Wood was herself in a film that covered awfully similar territory just last summer, Down in the Valley, and at least that film couched its cultural satire in a genre experiment.

On the whole, though, you can either damn King of California for that, or you can enjoy it for the rest of the things it does well. In the large, this is a nice film without being cloying, and a pro-family film that doesn't come across as insulated and conservative. It may not set the world on fire, but I can't imagine how you could use that as a criticism.