Family Fundamentals

Family Fundamentals

2002, NR, 75 min. Directed by Arthur Dong.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 19, 2002

How families reconcile their ideological dissonance is the unspoken subject matter of Family Fundamentals. This documentary looks at the lives of three gay adult children of Christian fundamentalist “families.” Or is it fundamentalists with gay offspring that's under observation? Family Fundamentals wants to find out what happens to the bond between parents and children when the family's religious beliefs and the adult child's homosexuality come into irreconcilable conflict. Are the ties that bind as curiously flexible as a bungee cord or as fatal as a noose? First up is Susan Jester, the lesbian daughter of Pentecostal church leader Kathleen Bremner; Bremner started the San Diego Spatula Ministries as a reaction to her daughter's coming out and now conducts support groups and conferences for other “afflicted” parents who wish to restore their children to heterosexuality. Complicating matters is the fact that Susan's son is also gay, and is just coming to terms with the hurtful effects of his grandmother's disapproval. Another subject of the film is Brett Matthews, who was discharged from the U.S. Air Force for his sexual orientation, and whose Mormon family lineage stretches back to the original settlers. The family turns the occasion of his first visit home in two years into something of an intervention. Probably the most interesting figure in the movie is Brian Bennett, a gay Republican who from 1977-89 served as the closeted chief of staff, campaign manager, and legislative aide to former Congressman Bob Dornan, who was one of the most rabidly anti-gay rights legislators ever to grace our nation's Capitol. Although not technically family members, Dornan and Bennett shared a father-son relationship that extended beyond their professional bond -- which was severed when Bennett publicly came out. In addition to the problems caused by irreconcilable differences, Bennett's story raises the question of just what constitutes a family. Ironically, filmmaker Arthur Dong (yes, that's his real name) never delves into the glaring contradiction staring him right in the face: how someone can be both gay and Republican without compromising one practice or the other. Family Fundamentals wants to provoke discussion and introspection, however the depth of its observations are likely to play differently amongst different audiences. Most of these adult gay “children” have made their peace, more or less, with their parents' rejection of them, and have already tried to move heaven and earth to win back their parents' tolerance, if not love. The parents, however, are still in the fight to save their children's souls and are searching ways to resolve their belief system with their emotional need. If this is able to spark debate or reflection among them then so much the better for Dong's film. But the documentary does little, apart from raising the topic, to further stoke the conversation. And, just maybe, some things will always remain rationally irreconcilable, despite the fact that the human heart and head often do fancy backflips in their attempts to quell any sounds of dissonance in their realms. In a way this is familiar territory for Sundance regular Dong. Two of his previous documentaries also examine the hatred of homosexuality within different subcultures: Licensed to Kill explores the mindsets of individuals incarcerated for their crimes of gay-bashing, and Coming Out Under Fire looks at gays in the military. My problem with Dong's films may ultimately boil down to our points of view. Dong sees the proverbial glass as half-full and rich with nourishing potential, whereas I tend to see only spilt milk. Certain ideas are incapable of co-existence, but glory be the human mind that can find a way to out-trump all contradictions. (Arthur Dong will be in attendance at the 7:10pm show on Wednesday, sponsored by the Austin Film Society.)

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Family Fundamentals, Arthur Dong

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