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Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Having fun with dysfunction

Filmmakers and their audiences are ready to look at themselves and their families more sincerely

By Kevin Spurgaitis

The astonishing thing about Rachel Getting Married is that it exists at all. Set in a Connecticut household filled with cigarette smoke and crankiness, it revolves around Kym, who is furloughed from rehab for her sister Rachel’s wedding. Self-loathing and self-pitying, she struggles to get through the festivities without narcissism, destructiveness and overall bad feelings. Nonetheless, Kym’s arrival causes long-standing family tensions to emerge.

Oh, the joy of watching family fallouts on the big screen. More and more, Hollywood is churning out films about gross family dysfunction, telling stories of adultery, physical abuse, mental illness, drug addiction and the occasional criminal indictment. Such topics are becoming not only more palatable but celebrated. It seems filmmakers are ready to look at themselves and their ilk more sincerely. Brutally honest as they are, movies about dysfunctional kinfolk are challenging long-held standards of family normalcy — and are winning over audiences.

Certainly, on-screen families have grown more dysfunctional since Robert Redford’s 1980 award-winning film, Ordinary People, in which the relationships within an affluent family are strained after the accidental death of the oldest son. Nearly 20 years later, director Sam Mendes shocked moviegoers with American Beauty. The dark comedy, set in American suburbia, pits a super-bland family man against his wife, an ambitious realtor who feels she’s not living up to her potential. Caught between the couple is their 16-year-old daughter, who struggles with self-esteem issues of her own. Then there are the family’s new neighbours: a homophobic army colonel, his dissociated wife and his voyeuristic son.

Filled with profanity and offbeat sexuality — usually outside of marriage — the film is scathingly funny in its depiction of modern suburbia. It questions the whole notion of conformity with the single adage, “Marriage is a commercial for how normal we are when we’re anything but.” But even in the wake of its shocking climax, it still manages to end on a note of acceptance.

American Beauty was embraced with surprising affection in 1999. It led to a spate of movies that further pushed the boundaries of acceptability. The most recent wave began with the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine.

Directed by husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the bittersweet story centres around the Hoover family in the American Southwest. There’s the matriarch, Sheryl, her life coach husband, Richard, their aliented son, Dwayne, and their seven-year-old daughter Olive; as well as Sheryl’s suicidal brother and Richard’s father Edwin, a curmudgeon who frequently snorts heroin. In order to help realize Olive’s dream of being crowned Little Miss Sunshine, the family must cross state lines as well as a series of emotional and psychological roadblocks.

The Savages, directed by Tamara Jenkins, is in the same vein. The 2007 drama looks at a couple of fractious siblings, Jon and Wendy Savage. Both are middle-aged and single. Jon is constantly uneasy and capable of angry pronouncements, while Wendy is habitually dishonest. Having gone their separate ways in life, the two are reunited only after their estranged father, Lenny, develops severe dementia and requires their care. And in true quarrelsome fashion, the Savages have conversations many families don’t want to have: those about near-bankruptcy, failed relationships and aging parents.

In the same year, moviegoers were treated to Margo at the Wedding. The drama by Noah Baumbach pits sister against sister, mother against son, lover against lover. Margot is a successful New York novelist teetering on divorce when she and her ever-bewildered son, Claude, visit her sister, Pauline, and her sister’s fiancé, Malcolm. These family members fall prey to their own insecurities, but it’s clear that they do love one another. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be able to hurt each other the way they do.

Though sadness pervades these films, raw tenderness and sincerity are at their heart. There is also hope in each storyline; no relationship is definitively severed despite many rifts. Bleak as they may be, these movies paint an authentic portrait of present-day families. They help us realize that the abnormalities of our separate clans are, indeed, very normal.

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