Take control of your life.
One of many side effects (central tenets) of the patriarchy is this notion that women must either follow a workaholic career trajectory devoid of distractions (family) or choose to stay at home and devote their time to being housewives without distractions (career). It’s a very conscious duality with which to place women in boxes and thus punish them for doing what men have done for millennia. Too many people see this contrast as deciding between a path towards ostracization for going against your unrealistic gender norms or one where your conscious acceptance of those norms ensures a life of subjugation. There’s no winning inside a world this binary because it assumes you cannot be both and thus forces you to cater to the conditioned whims of male supremacy.
Writer/director Laura Steinel looks to highlight this injustice with her debut feature Family by portraying how women can often prove gatekeepers who willingly prop that reality up as sacrosanct themselves. She does this by giving life to the aforementioned extremes (Taylor Schilling‘s corporate ladder climbing Kate who’s ditched emotional connection for the pragmatic utilitarianism of success and Allison Tolman as her oppressively maternal sister-in-law Cheryl) and a young woman caught between (Bryn Vale‘s Maddie, their niece and daughter respectively). Cheryl’s mother is being put into hospice and none of her usual, trusted babysitters are available. Desperate now at the eleventh hour, her husband Joe (Eric Edelstein) calls his sister. Kate doesn’t even remember Maddie’s name, but she eventually succumbs to accept the request against her better judgment.
It’s a premise ripe for the biting comedy that it supplies, but also the room to introduce teachable lessons for all three women. Because Kate is the lead, she’s in greatest need. We realize this straight off thanks to her penchant for yelling about people when they are standing right behind her. She tells us how she stole her job from a coworker (Matt Walsh‘s Dan) when he was on leave to help a son with behavioral issues; her view that you don’t need to fire women who go on maternity leave because they won’t be coming back anyway; and how her career has pretty much become her identity. Kate is an alcoholic devoid of scruples or remorse: everything her male bosses want from female subordinates.
Having Maddie under her care therefore provides a window onto a life she’s always dismissed. What’s interesting, however, is the realization that she has more in common with her outcast of a niece than the “pretty” girls abusing her. It’s a great flip on the usual script by ensuring this ugly duckling’s lesson won’t be empowerment through conformity. When Kate discovers what’s happening to Maddie, her lack of a filter leads to the espousing of truths that have become the foundations of her own life. These sentiments call out the girl’s bullies and her mother for refusing to understand Maddie doesn’t want to be a Barbie princess like their single-track minds demand. She wants to do karate and carve magical weaponry. She wants to be a Juggalo.
Add a mini-me threatening to leap over her at work (Jessie Ennis‘ Erin) and Kate is quite literally in hell. She’s hoping she’ll be able to survive doing the bare minimum by agreeing to let Maddie do whatever she wants as long as they both lie to her mother about it. Considering she’s so outside of her element having lived decades unencumbered by responsibilities outside of her own ambition, minimum is giving her too much credit. She’ll just up and leave without warning while in conversation with Joe and Cheryl’s appropriately passive aggressive neighbor (Kate McKinnon‘s Jill), take Maddie to the same restaurant every night to eat the same high caloric meal, and leave the girl unattended at a gas station upon receiving a call from work.
Each day gets more hectic (punctuated by a coffee machine slowly falling into disrepair) while increasing her frustration to a boil. One minute Kate’s the cool aunt telling Maddie to take control of her life and quit cheerleading/ballet to join Sensei Pete’s (Brian Tyree Henry) dojo and the next finds her channeling Cheryl to drag her niece away from “unsavory” friends like Insane Clown Posse fanatic Dennis (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido). She begins to remember who she was as a young girl and what happened to set her on her current path, wondering if any of it has ever made her happy. Kate fought so hard against one stereotype that she fell headfirst into another. If she can teach Maddie how to toe the line, maybe she can too.
Schilling is fantastic. Having only really seen her in romances (I haven’t watched “Orange Is the New Black” yet), the edge this character possesses is a welcome change of pace. She’s intensely confrontational with whoever crosses her path and will eviscerate them with words whenever the opportunity arises. Steinel does well to never let the role become one-dimensional, though, often letting Kate walk into clichés in order to break them. One of the best moments is when she’s running to a meeting with clients she’s worked months trying to land and apologizes for being late due to a “family emergency.” The director intentional shows the men’s faces crinkle in disgust before letting Schilling unleash a tirade that throws such insensitivity (that still rules her too) back at them.
That layering of intent sets Family apart from so many others with similar subject matter. Kate despises how Maddie is pushed towards femininity against her will and looks to combat it only to realize trading one extreme for the other does nobody any favors. Having this epiphany occur with the backdrop of an ICP “gathering” might initially feel too wild to accept, but it’s actually the perfect setting for a film about tearing down barriers built by disparaging preconceptions. It helps that the comedy is infectiously absurd despite ultimately remaining grounded. Steinel even keeps in a few shots of what I believe are actors breaking that prove to be wonderful moments of authenticity rather than examples of exposed artifice. They fit right in with the film’s unbridled candor.
courtesy of The Film Arcade