“Who even said you were my kid?”
The tagline for Casey Puccini‘s autobiographical fiction Children Without Parents is a disturbing proposition in context with its subject matter. As a film dealing with a quartet of siblings coming together at the house of their father days after his suicide, the words “this film will be a true story” have serious gravity to them. I get the meaning is more aligned with explaining how real life reactions to this death will be similar to what’s depicted and not an anticipation of his actual suicide, but the connotation exists. Luckily for us Puccini’s sensibilities skew towards the darkly comic so we can catalog this premonition as one more absurd joke within the whole. One more laugh to disarm us from the emotionally poignant and personal situations portrayed onscreen.
There does seem to be a trend towards stories of this ilk the past few years and just like the others—such as This Is Where I Leave You—Puccini’s can’t help but bring to mind The Big Chill. It’s bitingly cathartic atmosphere of memory, acceptance, and coping mechanisms recall those friends reuniting as a result of the worst possible catalyst any of them could think to imagine. But isn’t it always tragedy that finally bridges the gap of time? You want to believe celebrations have that same power, but how many times have you simply sent a present to a wedding, graduation, or baby shower destination in lieu of attending yourself? No, it’s only in difficult times that we realize face-to-face interaction is necessary to move on.
And this is true with the Puccini family of which scenarist/director Casey plays himself. (I say scenarist because despite a script, what’s ultimately shown was culled from improvised dialogue on behalf of the actors after a lengthy three-month rehearsal session.) He’s the one who found their father and called eldest brother Matt (Bryn Packard) with the news. From there word gets to Pat (Kevin Strangler) and the trio is introduced together awkwardly huddled by Dad’s front door to kill as much time as possible before entering and therefore letting the past wash over them. More than that, though, their father’s personality escapes to infiltrate their demeanor and attitude too. He was far from being any of their favorite person, but that doesn’t mean his faults didn’t pass down.
The way they interact reveals a distance between them—to all be under one roof again is an auspicious event. Adding sister Tanya (Sasha Gioppo) later only makes the occasion that much more rare and once pleasantries are exchanged we can easily see why. They don’t get along and they don’t attempt to hide this truth. There are war wounds between them both physically and psychologically because they played hard and dealt with a home where Dad simply shoved a finger in their faces with idle threats bolstered by a malicious air of anger. Casey is by default the least abrasive, his genial nature allowing his distinct pleasure in seeing the others ring true. They on the other hand can’t help turning knives to tap well-won blood.
Like every family, however, an evening of bile can quickly be replaced by kindhearted smiles the next day. Tensions run high because they’ve all escaped each other for reasons whose absence has proven rejuvenating. Finding themselves together again in a small area where the spirit of the man they loved and also loved leaving still lingers is hardly a healthy maneuver. But this is the responsibility of children—to make funeral arrangements, find the will, and clean up properties to be sold off. They buckle down and arrive to do their duty with the hope that their sorrow in this tragedy can bring them closer. But just as Dad drove them apart in life, he can’t help doing the same in death.
There’s honesty to this that shines through any budgetary constraints Puccini may have needed to endure on the road to getting his debut feature off the ground. Sticking to a cast of four and a single locale works wonders not only in keeping things minimal, but also claustrophobic. This foursome is literally on top of each other amongst objects possessed by as many trying times as joyous. And just as regret and guilt can rise in the memory of old transgressions, so too does resentment. Ancient feuds with no true bearing other than being between siblings forced to exist in the same space reignite and most infectious laughter turns to deep sorrow at the drop of a hat. Ego trumps humility and the past becomes present.
If you have siblings you’ll see yourself in one or possibly all the characters onscreen. Whether Type-A personalities like Matt and Tanya, passive followers like Casey, or attention-grabbing clowns like Pat—the equation is mostly the same across the board. We all compare ourselves with our brothers and sisters to believe we’re better, taking the mantle of newly anointed leader as though it’s a sacrifice when in fact it’s a power-grab. In the end we discover our shortcomings and passion alike all stem from our longing for stability. Good or bad, a parent is a parent and their absence is felt regardless of the freedom or loneliness it may provide. And sometimes we must come back together to remember why it was we initially split apart.