There are better films in the world about career-focused professionals who discover that actually caring about something other than work is better for the soul, but I’m guessing none of them are set against the backdrop of a Gathering of the Juggalos. But Family, the debut feature from writer-director Laura Steinel, is just such a movie, centering on Kate Stone (Taylor Schilling), who is not only a workaholic but kind of an insensitive asshole to everyone around her at her New York City corporate job. She doesn’t set out to be mean, but she seems to lack the ability to read social cues. She is missing the filters that stop the rest of us from saying the things that, admittedly, a lot of people are probably thinking but have enough compassion not to say.
Although it’s never explicitly mentioned, it’s entirely possible that Kate is on the spectrum and has legitimate reasons she can’t seem to find it in herself to be polite or social or anything but self-centered in her decision making. And while these traits have made it possible for her to rise through the ranks of her company, they have cost her dearly as a member of the human race. Her powers of empathy and kindness are put to the test when her estranged brother Joe (Eric Edelstein) calls her for emergency assistance to take care of her 12-year-old niece Maddie (Bryn Vale) while he and his wife (the always great Allison Tolman) must deal with her dying mother’s affairs. Originally the ask is only for an overnight stay, and even that is almost too much for Kate; but when a day becomes a week, she is forced to rearrange her priorities and try to balance work and looking after Maddie, who is having an identity crises of her own.
As Kate and Maddie begin to bond, it becomes clear that Maddie’s parents have been ignoring signs that she is not into the more girlie things they have been pushing her into, like ballet—she prefers the karate classes being taught by Sensei Pete (Brian Tyree Henry) next door to the dance studio. She also would rather hang out with the Juggalo kids at the nearby gas station, because they represent the freaks that Maddie seems to feel more comfortable around, certainly more so than the girlie girls at her high school. For those who don’t know, a Juggalo is an uber fan of the painted-face rap duo Insane Clown Posse, whose devoted followers also paint their faces to attend an annual weekend-long festival called the Gathering of the Juggalos.
The fact that Family fully incorporates Juggalo philosophy into its story is fascinating and unique to this film in ways I wasn’t expecting. Maddie wants to be heard and noticed on her own terms, and the only way she feels this can happen is by becoming a Juggalo. It may be an extreme way to make the film’s point about celebrating individuality and finding a family that supports you when your own family lets you down, but the message is valid and worthy of being showcased. The film’s subplot involving Kate trying to close a big deal while fending off a younger co-worker who is making a play for her big client is far less interesting or funny, and it seems it’s there simply to eat up time. Supporting roles by comedy powerhouses Kate McKinnon and Matt Walsh seem squandered when neither is given an opportunity to shine. It’s only when the film sticks to Kate and her family that things seem even moderately meaningful.
The film’s final act takes place at the aforementioned Gathering, which leads to one of the funnier moments in the movie involving the entire drunken Juggalo population searching for Maddie in a supreme act of kindness. Family has its heart in the right place even if the execution is a little tepid. Schilling walks a fine line between sympathetic and tremendously unlikable, and too often her character exists in the latter zone, making it difficult to enjoy spending any time with her. But every so often, she says something that is spectacularly funny that cuts through everyone’s bullshit and hits the mark, and largely because of that, the film is a serviceable first effort.
The film opens today in Chicago at the AMC River East 21.
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