Sunday, May 6, 2012

Secrets and Lies

The discovery that one's family is far from perfect can be extremely disorienting for those who have clung to an ideal -- if not delusional -- vision of what a family should be. Two of my favorite dramatic television series (Six Feet Under and Brothers and Sisters) began with the unexpected death of a strong father figure whose demise opened up a Pandora's box of questions about past misdeeds and unfulfilled relationships.

From desperate housewives and cheating husbands to troubled sons, anorexic daughters, and children of the corn, no family drama is safe from exploitation. Whether looking for horror (Dolores Claiborne, Carrie), farce (Meet The Fockers, Stuck On You, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), disillusionment (American Beauty, The Postman Always Rings Twice), dysfunctionality (Flirting With Disaster, Precious, What's Cooking?) or one's struggle to overcome a handicap (The Miracle Worker, Forrest Gump), it's a safe bet that someone's family is worse off than your own.

Unless they are strictly devoted to documentaries, most film festivals offer a wealth of stories about dysfunctional families. Whether or not one opts for a cafeteria approach to selecting which films to see (one rape, one murder, one film about infidelity, one film about a gifted child, one wedding, one film about domestic abuse), there are plenty of stories to be told. The recent San Francisco International Film Festival was no exception. Two shorts were especially interesting.

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Kat Candler's Hellion packs a huge amount of dysfunctionality into a mere seven minutes. It also shows great promise as the seed for a full-length feature. A big fan of Lord of the Flies, Candler set her film in a a small town in East Texas.

The plot is simple. Seven-year-old Petey Wilson (Deke Garner) has two older brothers (Arthur Dale and Tommy Hohl) who like to raise hell. When single father (Jonny Mars) arrives home from work to discover that the boys have started a bonfire in the back yard and duct-taped their babysitter (Karinne Berstis) to the side of the house, he doesn't hesitate to get out his strap and start punishing the little bastards.

It's obvious, however, that Petey (who clings to his stuffed toy in terror) is not the one responsible for causing all the damage. As Candler explains:
"My mom told me the story about the day her three younger brothers set fire to their dad's jeep ... and the repercussions when my grandfather came home. That story stuck with me for a long time. And the fact that my Uncle Frank (the youngest) kept the secret of what really happened for years."

The heavy metal music used in Hellion heightens the intensity of the older brothers' destructive impulses. How did Candler get such strong performances from her cast?
"Jonny Mars was always my first choice for the dad. I told [casting director] Katie Richter the kids would have to cry in their first round of auditions (I’ve learned that if they can’t cry in an audition, they can’t cry on set when the camera’s rolling). So 80% of the battle is the audition process and finding talented, honest kids who feel comfortable in their own skin and feel comfortable with you.  
In a film like Hellion (where you’re getting extreme emotions from little, little kids), you have to explain the process of working together and always 'check in' with them. I explained to Deke 'I’m not going to let you enter this scene until I see you’re emotionally ready. And Jonny’s going to yell at you in character as your dad to help get you there.' Jonny and I definitely took these kids through the ringer. But they were little bad asses who stepped up to the plate and held their own."
In interviews, Candler indicates that the full-length feature will explain a great deal more about why the children's mother is missing from the scene. This is a feature that is definitely worth waiting for.

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It's hard to achieve a believable balance between black comedy and genuine pathos, but Larry Cohen has accomplished the task quite nicely in his 12-minute short entitled Brothers. As the film begins, David Stern (Daniel Fox) and his brother Andy (Ben Sloane) are setting out on a road trip whose destination is the family celebration of Grandma Vern's 100th birthday.

All seems right with the world and the two brothers are obviously quite close. When they stop at a diner, however, David calls their mother to check in and is informed that Grandma Vern is dead. In a style known to many families, Barbara (Emily Zacharias) warns David not to tell his brother Andy, who has trouble coping with bad news.

Not only does David resent being stuck with the job of breaking the news of their grandmother's death to Andy, he can't understand how Grandma Vern (who had diabetes) could have choked to death on a Hershey's Kiss. When he breaks the news to Andy, his brother's reaction is surprisingly intense.

At first David is confused, but when Andy confesses that he could never refuse one of his grandmother's requests (every time he visited Grandma Vern he brought the bag of Hershey's kisses she kept begging for), the depth of his grief becomes more understandable.

A short film blessed by solid writing and a wonderful ensemble, Brothers is a tidy little gem (Susan Pasquantonio has a nice cameo as the diner's waitress). Here's the trailer:

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On May 29, 1973, when Angela Lansbury opened in the first London production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable, theatergoers on both sides of the Atlantic were curious to see if she would be able to fill the shoes of Ethel Merman, who created the role of Madam Rose at the show's Broadway premiere in 1959. Having worked carefully with director Arthur Laurents (who wrote  the book for the show), Lansbury identified an untapped character trait which, once fully articulated, forever redefined the character of Rose.

Lansbury saw Rose as a extremely stupid woman who was so starstruck that she sacrificed her family to pursue her show business dreams. In The Perfect Family, Kathleen Turner gets to play the kind of stupid woman who makes Rose look like a Rhodes scholar.

Eileen Cleary is the kind of devoted Catholic who has never questioned church dogma. Minus the physical equipment to be the proverbial "bull in a china shop," she has grown into a defiantly stubborn and immensely stupid Irish Catholic cow (I hesitate to insult the intelligence of cows).

A Perfect Family becomes more interesting when viewed in light of the recent brouhaha surrounding Dan Savage's criticism of religious hypocrites who use the Bible to justify their malicious behavior.

Eileen's talent for denial is challenged when she learns that she is being considered for the honor of being named Catholic Woman of the Year. Among the obstacles in the vetting process for the award are:
Jason Ritter as Frank, Jr.
  • Eileen's daughter, Shannon (Emily Deschanel), a successful attorney who is pregnant and planning to marry her lover.
  • Shannon's lover, Angela (Angelique Cabral), who in addition to not being male, is a beautiful and loving lesbian.
  • Angela's mother, Christina (Elizabeth Pena), who doesn't hesitate to shower Shannon and Angela with unconditional love.
Emily Deschanel and Angelique Cabral

Forced to choose between her family and her church, Eileen is torn between her habit of kissing up to Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain), and her need to seek help from the laid-back priest, Father Joe (Scott Michael Campbell), who performed her daughter's wedding ceremony. When backed against a wall, she finally tells her daughter about the time and circumstances, many years ago, when she had an abortion.

Kathleen Turner and Richard Chamberlain

It's interesting to compare the energy and intelligence levels of Kathleen Turner's characters in 1994's Serial Mom and 2012's The Perfect Family. Beverly Sutphin and Eileen Cleary are both maniacally misguided mothers who have become insufferable shrews.

The difference is that, while Beverly Sutphin exults in her misdeeds with a malicious kind of glee, Eileen Cleary comes to the sad realization that forcing everyone into petty lies in order to get the approval of church is the moral equivalent of worshipping false idols. When she finally understands that her children's happiness is more important than Monsignor Murphy's, the gift of reality is accompanied by a great personal loss.

One might think Claire V. Riley's story would resonate strongly with modern audiences but, even under Anne Renton's astute direction, The Perfect Family seems like it has been constructed on index cards and often feels labored in delivery. While Kathleen Turner is an exceptionally capable actress, portraying a woman who is so religiously gullible and inherently stupid may be beyond her reach. Jason Ritter flashes lots of winning smiles but cannot save this film from its best intentions.

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