2019, R, 85 min. Directed by Laura Steinel. Starring Bryn Vale, Kate McKinnon, Taylor Schilling, Brian Tyree Henry, Eric Edelstein, Jessie Ennis, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido, Blair Beeken, Matt Walsh, Allison Tolman.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 26, 2019
"Nobody is normal" is the shopworn bromide at the core of this sweet if mostly unsurprising debut from writer/director Steinel. But as this once-upon-a-teenage-misfit can dutifully attest, that’s a lesson hard won, especially when the mean girls (or guys) have you on their shit list. And what’s so wrong about a self-affirmative sermon like that? Absolutely nothing. Every younger generation needs to be told that it’s okay to feel that they’re “a freak at their core.” As embodied by the face-painted murder-rap hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse and their rabid fans, the Juggalos and Juggalettes, who background Family’s ugly duckling coming-of-age empowerment story, that’s a lesson to be reiterated over and over again, time immemorial. Ostensibly the story of a plump preteen’s coming to terms with this, that, and herself as The Other, Family succeeds, for the most part, because of and not despite the sheer familiarity of its hoary storyline.
Schilling (Orange Is the New Black) plays Kate Stone, a virulently workaholic, Merlot-swigging top-notcher at a big bucks East Coast firm. She’s initially painted as the sort of insensitive hydra who, having clawed her way up, into, and finally, hopefully, beyond the corporate boys' club, has lost her soul somewhere along the way. It’s not until Kate receives a desperate phone call from her brother – who she’s lost to the crush of ambition and some seriously ill-advised emotional self reliance – asking her to take care of her 11-year-old niece Maddie (a terrifically winning Vale) in the wake of a family emergency that both Kate and Maddie begin to learn those oh-so-important life lessons from each other.
Mashing up bits and bobs borrowed from everything from 1987’s surprise Diane Keaton hit Baby Boom to John Hughes’ Uncle Buck – with a few moments of what I’d swear was Adam Wingard’s The Guest and a hint of Patti Cake$ thrown in for good measure – Family’s only real sin is how much it plays up (and then how little it includes) outsider/insiders ICP. Driving the "It’s okay to feel like a pre-teenage dirtbag" vibe into the Hatchetman boneyard is A-OK, but if a movie’s trailer appears to promise Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope’s magnificently maniacal DIY mythos as anything less than a key element of the story at hand, then why bother? Kudos then, for the post-credits sequences of real-life Juggalos enthusing over their horrorcore stalwarts' sense of honest-to-goodness family.
Filmgoers of almost any age can foresee the various stratagems of Family by this point. But then there’s occasional genuine surprises, such as when Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll) shows up as an ICP superfan only to comment, in a very meta and sideways fashion, on her own infamous upbringing: “Kids need strong boundaries, they need to know that you’re in charge.” Or when Kate, whose overnight makeup mantra regime demands it’s either your face or your ass, and you can’t have both, lectures the suddenly ICP-enthused Maddie, “So what, you’re going to paint your face like a clown-person until you’re unrecognizable? So what else does this lifestyle entail?” It is to laugh, cry, or maybe just let your freak flag fly. Sure, it hits all the requisite beats of its seriocomic genre but it still manages to be more emo than ICP’s “Another Love Song.” But apart from Eminem’s "’97 Bonnie & Clyde," what isn’t?