Edwanike Harbour takes a look at three family-themed films, including recent Golden Globe-winner Minari.
The halo of the holidays has just about faded. Even amidst the pandemic, we have recovered from countless Zoom dinners and conversations with both sets of grands (if you’re lucky), Uncle Dale trying to convince you of his QAnon theories, and Cousin Alice showing you her umpteenth attempt at making stained glass decorations. Maybe you’ve grown to appreciate your family much more now that you can’t see them in person. Or maybe you are breathing a grateful sigh of relief that social distancing keeps you from having to be in the presence of people you love but drive you completely out of your skull.
Family dynamics are the origins of who we are and ultimately who we become unless we can break their (potentially) destructive behavior patterns. Here are three films that span three decades (2000s, ‘10s, and ‘20s), which look at the joys and woes of what it takes to keep a family together.
Recently released on premium VOD services, Minari (2020) [and as of mid-May 2021 on standard VOD platforms] is the latest sensation from indie powerhouse production company, A24. The film follows Jacob (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead), who’s decided to bring his Korean-American family from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to fulfill his dream of growing and selling his own Korean vegetables. Both Jacob and wife Monica (brilliantly portrayed by Han Ye-ri) were chicken sexers in California, and so they are quickly able to find work doing the same thing for a small Southern farm with other immigrant families.
After Jacob buys a 50-acre plot of land, the locals try to use folksy, unconventional methods to locate a reliable water source. This is nonsense in the eyes of Jacob, at least as he tells his plucky young son David (Alan S. Kim), because they’re Korean and use their heads to figure things out, not spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Bumps in the road inevitably arise in the family’s livelihood; and, while Jacob certainly loves them, he is holding so steadfastly to his dreams that he often loses sight of why it’s important for him to succeed in the first place.
Minari is powerful, because it tells the underdog story of an immigrant family struggling to make it in such a tight, superbly executed way. We still see the frays and unraveled edges of this family, but the semi-autobiographical storytelling is so well-woven and satisfying from beginning to end. Director Lee Isaac Chung does a fantastic job of posing questions regarding faith, superstition, and empirical science as the family waivers between implementing their knowledge and resources of the land but then having to rely upon other superstitious methods to save their farm. Steven Yeun continues to be quite the underrated indomitable force; and with this film’s newfound recognition, hopefully his performance will begin to push him into the forefront with bigger movie stars.
Other People (2016), written and directed by Chris Kelly, is another solid pick streaming on Netflix. While billed as a comedy, prepare to have a box of Kleenex nearby, as this film is a roller coaster of emotions. Family dynamics play heavily and, as many movies that revolve around a sick family member, the affliction is always looming, casting a dark pall, and squeezing any drop of joy from life. SNL fans may be familiar with Kelly’s work as a writer on the long-running sketch show, but the real Oscar-worthy standout is Molly Shannon (who deserves to see more work in serious fare) as matriarch Joanne, who prepares the family for her inevitable departure into the void.
Events begin with David (Sad Sack Everyman, Jesse Plemons) returning to Sacramento to deal with his family and help his mother (Shannon), who’s been diagnosed with cancer. He is already having arguably the worst year of his life, suffering a recent break-up with his gay partner of five years. And, on top of that, his comedy-writing career has stalled. To complicate matters further, David’s father has never fully accepted his sexuality, so he still has to compartmentalize parts of himself while dealing with the foreboding grief that his life may be about to change forever.
Plemons has absolutely crushed every role he has taken (from Breaking Bad, Game Night, to the TV version of Fargo), and the range of his portrayal of David is no different as he holds a great deal of pain inside— quiet, but with a certain tension underneath the surface. Filled with dark humor and pathos, Other People does a great job of showing what can happen when the primary source of social support is not fully present. The human spirit can either triumph to transcend grief and pain or fall to emotional devastation. It would no doubt be therapeutic to process the film with a good friend afterwards.
Finally, streaming free on Tubi and available on VOD services like Vudu, is an early, winning feature by Noah Baumbach, The Squid And The Whale (2005), which just might be considered among the definitive white-liberal family dysfunction films that have become more popular in the last decade. Wes Anderson also served as a producer on the film, which lends it a perfect amount of moment-to-moment absurdism.
Jeff Daniels stars as Professor Bernard Berkman, who teaches composition at a small liberal arts college in New York City. His wife Joan, played by the always reliable Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me, The Savages), is a brilliant author in her own right; and recently, her career has catapulted with the publication of several novels. The hyperliterate couple live in a Brooklyn brownstone with books piled from floor to ceiling.
Their eldest son Walt (perma-nerd Jesse Eisenberg) has decided to completely model his life on his father’s preconceived notions and suppositions on practically everything. In this blind support, Walt shuns and disrespects his mother no matter how she tries to reach out to him. In a most biting scene, the family sits down to a meal while Walt asks his dad if he should bother reading Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, who sees it as a “minor” work. When Joan suggests Walt make up his own mind, he responds vituperatively, “Because I don’t want to waste my time.” Meanwhile, youngest son Frank (Owen Kline) is testing the limits of his perceived manhood by drinking scotch and engaging in some wildly inappropriate behavior at school.
These relationships are hard to overcome when families are trapped in a box in New York. Faced with decisions on how to move forward, Walt grows even more disparate and judgmental of his mother while Frank spins out of control. One of the funniest and most memorable moments features Walt playing a Pink Floyd song for his parents while claiming it as his own. This might have only been possible during the early ‘80s in a family oblivious to prog rock and immersed in upper class academia, but it does elicit quite the laugh to hear the song and think no one would have been wiser to Walt’s plagiarism.
As he spirals, Walt’s desire to do and believe everything from his father’s mouth has very visibly destroyed what could have been a good relationship with his girlfriend Sophie (Halley Feiffer). And, in a telling moment, he tries to take on Bernard’s opinions about literature to impress her when he clearly has not read the material. Jeff Daniels as Bernard really is the ultimate pedant in this film, treating everyone around him like Faulknerian simpletons while trying to keep it together himself and making every wrong turn imaginable.
Along with the Pink Floyd refrain, the film’s score by Dean and Britta manages to hit all the right notes. The Squid And The Whale’s final frame is somewhat hopeful, not only for the Berkman family, but maybe for the resolution of twisted and torqued family dynamics in general.