The dysfunctional family movie has seen so many different iterations over the years that it’s become a sort of subgenre unto itself. Oftentimes suburban (at least with respect to US output), consistently caustic, the best dysfunctional family movies capture both the inextricable ties that keep people together no matter the adversity and the infighting and bitterness that can often come from the very same.
The release of This Is Where I Leave You sees yet another entry into the pantheon of films where blood ties lead to all kinds of infighting. Based on the wonderful Jonathan Tropper novel (who adapted his own work for the film’s screenplay), This Is Where I Leave You chronicles a tense week in the life of the Altman clan after the patriarch of their estranged family passes away. As they gather under the same roof to bid him farewell, a great many buried resentments are dredged up, spurred on by Judd’s (Jason Bateman) recent cuckolding at the hands of his oafish boss (Dax Shepard).
The source material is equal parts wistful, unflinching, and uproariously funny, and while time will tell if the film follows suit, we thought we’d take this opportunity to offer up some thoughts on our favorite tales of family chaos and the sequences that best define them. Check out our list, and feel free to talk over your own favorites with us.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
For a movie that looks a lot like a lot of other Sundance dramedies on the surface, Little Miss Sunshine is a rarity among them in that it sticks with you long after it ends. Though the vestiges of indie-movie quirk are there (name actors in unconventional character roles, outmoded vintage items as plot points, a soundtrack by a well-regarded indie rock band), the film is less about its surface traits and a lot more about how families interact and how sometimes a group of people who can’t stand one another are the best support system for each member.
The film takes on everything from body dysmorphia to suicide to drug addiction to the American spirit of competition, but it never stops being funny or a film about the Hoovers and their struggles as they attempt to support Olive (Abigail Breslin) and her dream of winning a beauty pageant. Most poignantly, it’s the selectively mute Dwayne (Paul Dano), Olive’s older brother, who captures the film’s spirit in his climactic silence-breaking freak-out. Chastising his entire family for their delusions and endless bickering, he collapses into a pile of tears until his sister shows him a bit of kindness and kinship. And so Dwayne picks up shop and gets back on the family bus.
Little Miss Sunshine is at once hilarious and devastating, a film where the threats of mortality and failure hang over Devotchka’s sun-soaked score and the Hoovers at every moment, but it’s ultimately a story of how failure is completely relative, ending in the Hoovers finally coming together as a group. And being banned from the California youth pageant scene for life. They can’t all be wins. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
The Host (2006)
It’s quite upsetting that should you attempt to find Bong Joon-ho’s ingenious monster movie/family dramedy hybrid The Host, a search won’t lead you to the film you’re looking for, at least not right away. Thanks, Stephenie Meyer!
Anyway, despite making his English-language directorial debut with this year’s Snowpiercer, Joon-ho’s 2006 film should’ve been an even bigger hit Stateside. Starting off as the story of a barely functioning, estranged unit, The Host eventually asks the motley lot to work through their problems, lest they fall victim to a grotesque fish monster, one created due to government negligence and the dumping of toxic waste into a river in Seoul.
The dissention and bickering ends up having unexpected consequences, particularly in a sequence in which Park Gang-Du (Song Kang-ho) attempts to arm his father (Byun Hee-bong) in order to buy time for the family to escape, only to realize that he miscounted the number of shots left in the weapon. But that’s the thing about The Host. Even as the bodies pile up and the Park family runs the risk of being taken apart forever, it’s as much about them trying to overcome their petty differences as it is the gigantic nuclear sea creature threatening the city, and particularly its sewers. It’s a feel-good-ish popcorn movie for people who don’t like it when their popcorn movies talk down to them. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Ordinary People (1980)
After two hours of skirting around heartbreak and repressing their true feelings, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) finally tells Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) how he feels. The long-married couple lost one of their sons in a boat accident. The grief is staggering. Their surviving son, Conrad (an Oscar-winning Timothy Hutton), is going to counseling because he watched his brother die. Beth has been burying her feelings for a long time in upper-class suburban parties and shopping and deflective conversations. It’s the veneer of normalcy that sustains her. Calvin can’t stand it anymore, like there’s no humanity left in her. He needs to say something honest and for her to feel something again. He needs to grieve. Sitting alone, by a window, in his large, empty home, he puts his cards on the table for Beth. “You know something? You’re determined, Beth. But you’re not strong.”
Moist-eyed and upfront, Calvin asks if she can do anything honest anymore and if she has any love left to give. Or did her soul die? He loved her once and still probably does. But does she love anything anymore? Right then and there, we see the dissolution of not only a marriage, but a family too, because they can’t brave their feelings together. Ordinary People dares to look at a family in crisis and let you know that everything’s not okay. Calvin and Beth separate that day, not with a bang, but a well-furbished whimper. Judith Guest’s affluent family melodrama is written in a way that doesn’t garner cynical remarks. And Robert Redford adapted that story in such a way as to maintain and even intensify the emotional heartbreak of a family in a north suburban Illinois. Ordinary People is a familiarly big hurt. –Blake Goble
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
John Cassavetes’ free-form A Woman Under the Influence makes you feel like a marriage can withstand anything. Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands, in her finest role) and Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) are the married couple. They’ve been fighting, screaming, gesticulating, acting out – really just testing the strength of their bonds in the wake of Mabel’s return from a mental institution. They’re in bed one morning after particularly hard times, and you see that the couple is still in love. They’re not the most articulate people, but in their peculiar, melodramatic way, you can tell that Nick and Mabel are going to keep at it. Suddenly, their kids burst in, screaming about how they love Mommy and Daddy, and you just break down.
It’s touching, and overwhelmingly emotional, given everything this couple has been through. The scene ends uneasily, as Nick and Mabel haven’t made any concrete decisions on where they go from here, but you get a glimpse of hope for them and their family. To small victories! Mabel went away a long time ago. It’s not immediately clear as to why, but her husband Nick is left taking care of their three kids. She didn’t leave because she hated her family, no. Her unstable mind has left cracks in their family, and upon coming back, the couple aren’t sure if they’ll survive this episode. Today, it might be called anxiety or bipolar disorder, but in 1974, Mabel’s pain was likely baffling. Yet, it’s ironic given that Nick isn’t stone sane himself. –Blake Goble
In the Bedroom (2001)
“I couldn’t wait.” Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) exhaustedly, remorsefully says this after shooting a man. We’re not sure how to feel in that moment, as it’s not glorious at all. The man that Matt shot was Richard Stout (William Mapother), a local ne’er-do-well. Richard shot and killed Matt’s son, Frank (Nick Stahl). After much contemplation, methodical planning, and guilt-ridden soul searching, Matt has opted to take an eye for an eye. Matt shoots his son’s killer. See, Matt had devised this whole plan with a longtime friend. The pain of losing his son was too much. Matt and his wife, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), are having an impossible time finding solace, and gun violence might be their answer.
Who’s to say if it’s the answer; it’s certainly not In the Bedroom’s job to make a statement on whether or not Matt is doing the right thing, only to show this couple completely and honestly. The film does not necessarily condone what Matt is doing, but it begs the question – what lengths would a father go to feel peace after a wrongful death? Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is a forgotten Oscar contender, but it’s a timeless domestic drama. Within its limited scope, we access what feel like earth-shattering emotions as the Fowler clan is torn asunder. The movie’s full of love and guilt, sympathetically drawn, and brutally mundane. –Blake Goble
Blue Valentine (2010)
The steep decline of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) relationship wouldn’t be so difficult to watch were it not for those damned flashbacks. Seeing the pair meet and fall in love, during flashback scenes interspersed throughout Blue Valentine, makes it that much more depressing to see them fall out of it. Well, to see one of them fall out of it. Blue Valentine isn’t trying to tell us that all love ends, because that cynical notion just wouldn’t ring true. The film reminds us that just because you’re a good parent doesn’t mean you can’t be a shitty spouse. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they will or even should love you back.
We discover Cindy has fallen out of love with Dean, plain and simple. He shows great affection for the child they raise (whom may not even be his) and makes misguided efforts to show his love for her (in a brutally awkward hotel stay), but Cindy no longer feels the same. But that’s okay. It sucks for Dean, but it is what it is. Too often, audiences are coddled with unrealistic expectations that can even bleed over into their own beliefs – that true love lasts a lifetime. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.
As fireworks set off both between them and into the dusky sky, Dean and Cindy’s relationship isn’t officially over by the time Blue Valentine ends, but it sure feels that way. –Justin Gerber
Looking back now, it’s easy to classify Firstborn as a melodramatic yarn, so I’ll go ahead and do just that. However, even when the film is trashy, it never falls into the category of garbage. This Michael Apted film is unintentionally time stamped as a mid-‘80s feature film thanks to its score and fashion sense, but Firstborn succeeds due in large part to the performances of the affected Livingston family, whose family members range from wide-eyed newcomers to veteran performers.
Jake (Christopher Collett, fresh from getting his head lopped off in Sleepaway Camp) and his brother (the late Corey Haim) are dealing with their parents’ recent divorce and end up having to deal with their mother (Teri Garr) meeting a new man named Sam (a pre-Robocop Peter Weller). As uneasy as it is for Jake to let a new man into his home, let alone his mother’s bed, it gets worse when Jake discovers Sam is a drug dealer. The most devastating scene of Firstborn takes place as Jake finds both Sam and his mother doing hard drugs, reminding us that even a suburban housewife can fall victim to such behavior if she ends up in the wrong circumstances.
A showdown between Jake and Sam ensues near the film’s climax, which concludes exactly how you’d imagine. Some films working off the divorce angle try to show us the hopeful possibilities of life after such proceedings. Firstborn does not. –Justin Gerber
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Capturing the Friedmans might just be the most gut-wrenching film about family dysfunction that’s ever been made. That’s because every tear, every accusation, every moment of in-fighting is real, all recorded by the Friedmans’ oldest son, David, and meticulously compiled by director Andrew Jarecki. It documents a well-to-do family, which slowly implodes after police charge the patriarch, Arnold, and his youngest son, Jesse, with multiple counts of child molestation. But the film’s not concerned with matters of guilt or innocence as much as it is with the family’s emotional upheaval. All the Friedmans’ doubts and hostilities bubble to the surface during one particularly charged scene.
On Arnold’s birthday, David and Jesse gang up on their mother, Elaine. They accuse her of never being on their father’s side, for not “honoring and respecting” him. She defends herself, but it’s clear that she’s worn down. After all, her opinion of Arnold’s guilt is more informed than her sons’, developed after years spent in a loveless marriage. It’s hard to say if the sons are actually angry with their mother or if they just need someone to blame, but it is clear that neither one — especially David, our videographer — is willing to consider the awful possibility that their dad is guilty. Eventually, the rest of the family moves the fight to another room, leaving Arnold hunched over at the dinner table with his head in his hands. You can read a lot into this image, but the only thing we know for sure is this: Arnold Friedman is now completely broken and painfully alone. –Adriane Neuenschwander
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a ballsy movie. First of all, the film’s protagonist, Eva (Tilda Swinton), embodies one of the last remaining family-centric taboos — she’s a woman who resents being both a wife and mother. Her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), is understanding, but she doesn’t really love him; they’re only married because of an unexpected pregnancy. And her children? Well, Eva can’t really show either of them any sincere affection either, especially her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), a young sociopath who relishes inflicting emotional pain on her whenever possible. Signs of Kevin’s psychosis start off small — crying incessantly and soiling himself on purpose — but eventually peak in the film’s third act.
When driving home from work, Eva sees a caravan of police and emergency vehicles pass. She immediately knows that her son is responsible for whatever’s wrong. After the dust has settled, she discovers that Kevin has slaughtered his classmates, as well as his father and sister, with a bow and arrow. Despite having the opportunity, Kevin chose to spare his mother, perhaps only to make her suffer the aftermath, including years of public scorn and the persistent regret of not doing more to prevent the tragedy. It’s the pinnacle of sadness for this already troubled family. But I also think it’s a way for director Lynne Ramsey, herself a Scotswoman, to hold a mirror up to American society, to show that sometimes the things we least want to discuss are the things we need to talk about the most. –Adriane Neuenschwander
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Baumbach surrogate Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) has the life I always thought I was robbed of. Growing up as trailer trash in the 1980s, fat little me would have given his last bite of Banquet salisbury steak to live in a tony New York brownstone with writers for parents. My mechanic dad may have been the unofficial arm wrestling champion of West Texas, but he never tossed off brags like, “It’s Mailer’s favorite of my books.” Nothing about The Squid and the Whale and its insufferable characters (save for the poor, freckled Sophie) should have connected with me. I handled my parent’s divorce like a champ without plagiarizing Pink Floyd or wiping my boy-joy on library books. But somehow the movie hits home in the home I never had. –Roy Ivy