MOVIE OF THE WEEK May 3, 2019: Laura Steinel’s FAMILY

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motw logo 1-35Stories about stand-offish/lonely/workaholic adults being transformed by their relationship with precocious/charming/offbeat kids aren’t hard to find in Hollywood, but — until Family — none have hinged on the transformative power of acceptance by the Juggalos. And that helps make Laura Steinel’s quirky, poignant comedy about a reluctant aunt and her awkward niece stand out from the crowd.

Kate Stone (Taylor Schilling) is all about her job, at least partly because she has no discernible people skills: She’s dismissive, brutally honest, and extremely impatient. Her brother and sister-in-law turn to her as a last resort to take care of their tween daughter, Maddie (Bryn Vale), while they deal with a family emergency. What’s supposed to be a one-night gig turns into a full week, and Kate — despite her initial horror at doing anything as domestic as taking Maddie to school and making sure she eats — finds herself drawn to her niece, who’s also an outsider among her peers.

Maddie, in turn, appreciates Kate’s candor (most of the time) and distinctly non-parental take on how to deal with things like mean girls and school dances. She also takes advantage of Kate’s less-than-vigilant approach to childcare to nurture a friendship with Dennis (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido), an enthusiastic convenience store employee who introduces Maddie to the Juggalos (aka superfans of the band Insane Clown Posse). The group’s penchant for terrifying clown make-up and drug-fueled parties belies their open acceptance of people from all walks of life — or so Dennis says, anyway — and Maddie is intrigued. It all culminates in a frantic search/cheerful celebration that proves to Kate just how much she’s changed in only a week.

Schilling, perhaps best known for “Orange Is the New Black,” is effectively deadpan as Kate; she knows people don’t like her because — as she says — she has a habit of “saying things that everyone is thinking.” She’s not always kind (her comments about Maddie’s cruel classmates, while funny, aren’t exactly the height of women supporting women) and she definitely doesn’t get social niceties, but she sees some things very clearly, especially when it comes to Maddie. She gets that Maddie doesn’t feel like the other kids — and doesn’t want to feel like the other kids. Kate gives Maddie the gift of acceptance, and that’s a cinematic outcome that never grows old. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Loren King Laura Steinel’s debut feature “Family” is a likable vehicle for “Orange Is the New Black” star Taylor Schilling who gets to play broad comedy and heart-tugging drama as driven, uptight career woman Kate Stone whose single-minded ambition is quickly toppled by her misfit niece Maddie (Bryn Vale) when Kate is forced to take care of the middle-schooler for an extended time. The film is full of cliches about a workaholic woman being taught life lessons by a wise, oddball child, but Schilling and especially newcomer Vale make it worth watching. Bryan Tyree Henry (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and the always watchable Kate McKinnon make the most of humorous supporting roles as, respectively, a sweet karate instructor and a busy-body neighbor.

MaryAnn Johanson Hooray for weird, complicted, even terrible women! I feel like I’ve said this more than once before recently — and I have — and this applies not just to Taylor Schilling’s workaholic Kate but two-thirds to her oddball niece, Bryn Vale’s Maddie, too. (Maddie’s not terrible, just weird and complicated.) What writer-director Laura Steinel does with these misfit female characters is terrific, if maybe not enough of a deep dive. But my overarching issue with *Family* has nothing to do with the movie itself, and everything to do with how this movie particularly and movies like it in general are received by our pop culture: as outliers, as niche, as of only limited “arthousey” interest. Movies about male characters like Kate and Maddie get wide, mainstream releases all the time. There is absolutely no reason why, with the right marketing push and an appropriate adverstising budget, a movie like *Family* shouldn’t be getting dropped onto 3,000 screens. That it hasn’t says a lot about how our pop culture remains mired in misogyny. I’m glad this movie and others like it are out there at all. But they need to be getting wider play.

Marina Antunes Laura Steinel’s feature film debut Family takes a familiar story of a high-strung career woman whose life beyond the job is non-existent, and transforms her into a caring, life-loving woman. What sets Family apart is Taylor Schilling’s terrific performance which infuses the film with heart, charm and more than a few laughs.

Elizabeth Whittemore Too few films feature unlikeable leads. Family makes a bold move in doing just that. Taylor Schilling helms this dark comedy film with a lot of heart. Kate will do anything to move up in her career, with no thought for anyone but herself. Guilted into taking care of her awkward niece becomes a life-changing experience. Maddie would rather do karate and make stick weapons than wear a dress and learn ballet. This makes for one amazing pair of hilariously mismatched family members. The viewing audience will undeniably relate to the frustration of not feeling understood. Family most likely possesses one of the most unexpected climax scenes for a film in this genre. Issues like self-esteem, kindness, and authenticity are all approached with laughter and sincere thought. This carefully crafted script is elevated with amazing performances from the entire cast. Laura Steinel’s Family is a real gem.

Nell Minow: An endearing story about characters who are less unlikeable than they fear, and who are able to find a place that feels like home.

Pam Grady: Absurdity, thy name is Family, as writer/director Laura Steinel builds a hilarious yet oddly touching story around an awkward business executive with absolutely no filter, her even more awkward tween niece misunderstood by both parents and classmates who see her as a freak, and juggalos, the rabid fanbase of the horrorcore hip hop group Insane Clown Posse. Kate (Orange Is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling in a brilliant, often discomfiting performance) only has to take care of 11-year-old Maddie (Bryn Vale) for a few days, but work-obsessed and without a maternal bone in her body, stuff gets ignored that Kate ought to be paying attention to—like Maddie’s allergies. At the same time, since she barely knows the girl, she sees her with fresh eyes, noticing things that have slipped right past her caring but oblivious mom and dad. Where it all goes will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a single episode of any sitcom, as Steinel hit all the predictable beats. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Steinel may not break new ground with this, her first feature, but she delivers the laughs and warms hearts along the way. And she earns style points for her embrace of the juggalos—although, coulrophobics, you’ve been warned.

Jennifer Merin A first feature from writer/director Laura Steinel, Family follows curmudgeonly Kate (Taylor Schilling), a hard-hitting career women who manages to antagonize everyone, as she is snatched from her high stress hedge fund office and recruited to temporarily take care of her niece, Maddie (Bryn Vale), a teen with low self-esteem and severe social ineptitude. The two gals have trouble finding common ground and setting ground rules, especially when Maddie hooks up with local Juggalos, adopts their caustic behavior and odd style of dress and runs away to join their chaotic free-for-all festival. Steinel’s skillfully silly script is sometimes predictable but creates ample opportunity for topnotch comedic turns from Schilling, Vale, Kate McKinnon (as a nosy, bossy neighbor) and other cast members who keep the laughs coming. At the same time, there is affecting poignancy in Kate and Maddie’s struggles to overcome the ways in which they are socially crippled and to find their stride –with each other and, as a result, with the rest of the world.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Writer-director Laura Steinel’s feel-good directorial debut Family subverts the cliche that single women would be more likable and complete with a child, because Taylor Schilling’s socially awkward Kate never yearns for a child. What she does yearn for, and what is utterly more believable, is connection, period. And she finds connection after watching her equally-as-awkward 11-year-old niece Maddie (Brynn Vale). Maddie – who is (unbeknownst to her parents) bullied at school – and Kate – who alienates everyone at her finance office – have wonderful, exchanging truths they don’t share with anyone else. Steinel throws in a hilarious twist into the mix when Maddie makes friends with local young Juggalos, and Kate teams up with Sensei Pete, Maddie’s patient karate teacher played with nuanced precision by Brian Tyree Henry, to rescue Maddie from a Juggalo Gathering. Yes, Kate is changed by her experience caring for a niece she barely knew – one who is a lot like herself. But that doesn’t mean the message is that career women should give up their work to raise children, but that a life without family and friends is lonely and unsatisfying, no matter how much you love your work.

Susan Wloszczyna: This comedy gets Orange Is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling out of her prison garb and into a millennial power-suit as Kate, a tactless working gal trying to climb the ladder of success at her hedge fund job while lacking any kind of filter when spewing demands and insults at her co-workers. She is nothing but scathingly honest. Suddenly, she is recruited by her estranged brother to be a caretaker for her awkward tween niece, Maddie, who is bullied in school, sneaks out of ballet class to take martial arts lessons instead and likes to eat salt off of pretzel sticks. Read full review.

Cate Marquis The most family-unfriendly, empathy-challenged boss ever, Kate (Taylor Schilling), a ruthless New York City business woman who only cares about work, finds herself temporarily caring for her brother’s daughter, a pre-teen niece she’s hardly met. And, worse yet, city snob Kate has to stay with her niece in their home in *shudder* the suburbs of New Jersey no less. Writer/director Laura Steinel has a little extra fun with that city-suburbs thing, with Kate McKinnon playing a bossy suburban soccer mom neighbor. Yeah, OK, it’s not the most original idea but Family has more silly humor than you expect, thanks in large part to niece Maddie (Bryn Vale), a kind of nerdy girl who doesn’t fit in. Maddie immediately takes advantage of her parents’ absence to break loose from their narrow expectations for her. Obsessed with work, Kate tries to do as little as possible at first, but soon sees a bit of her own oddball younger self in Maddie. Still, Kate has no clue how to parent and things get crazy quickly, especially when Maddie falls in with a weird group of clown make-up wearing Juggalos. It all leads to the expected insights, but it does offer silly fun and even some touching moments along the way.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Family

Directors: Laura Steinel

Release Date: April 19, 2019

Running Time: 85 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Laura Steinel

Distribution Company: The Film Arcade

Trailer

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).