FAMILY PORTRAIT – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Corral a group of people for a photograph, and the story behind how everyone got there to hold still and smile for a moment sometimes tells a lot more than what’s in the picture.

That’s the inspiration behind Family Portrait, a feature that goes so far as to have one character muse about how photos can’t capture the full truth. Unfortunately, the threadbare plot and plodding pace make the film more an experimental journey than an engrossing drama.

Making her feature debut, writer-director Lucy Kerr successfully creates a feeling of isolation and unease from the opening moments as a sprawling family tries to gather under trees for a Christmas card photo. A woman in a red sundress hands out Santa hats while several young children horse around, getting on each other’s nerves. The adults stand wherever the mood strikes as the sound picks up mostly bird and road noise instead of bickering.

The basic plot involves Katy (Deragh Campbell, I Don’t Know Who You Are) and her boyfriend, Olek (Chris Galust, The Shade), visiting Katy’s family from far away. Olek, a Pole whose accent most people in Katy’s native Texas mistakes for Russian, has offered to take the photograph. Katy’s family seems welcoming enough, but Katy has had trouble sleeping since they arrived, and every time she tries to make small talk, it comes out awkward.

Campbell and the script by Kerr, Rob Rice, and Karlis Bergs convey Katy’s out-of-sorts feelings, trying to catch up on missed gossip and memories with siblings while skirting around minefields, like their father’s firm belief that visiting the hospital makes people sicker. Relatably, Katy wants to take the photo and head out, especially since she and Olek have a plane to catch. But no one else is in any rush to accommodate them, sneering at her for being overly sensitive.

Then her mom wanders off, and the film too loses direction while Katy searches for her.

The film’s preference for long takes does little to help the dramatic tension over the one-hour-eighteen-minute running time, and the ambiguous ending is puzzling at best. While trying to show what develops among these relationships, Family Portrait leaves quite a bit out of the frame.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.