Review: A Stacked Cast Elevates Family Squares Above Its Zoom-Filmed Family Meetings

Another example of pure pandemic cinema is this week’s release of Family Squares, a lightweight but often quite funny work from director and co-writer (with Brad Morris) Stephanie Laing (Irreplaceable You, many episodes of “Veep”), which tells the story of the Worth family in the immediate aftermath of the death of matriarch Grandma Mabel (June Squibb). After her hospice nurse (Zoë Chao) sets up a Zoom call with the entire family to be with Mabel as she passes away, her funeral director/estate attorney (Sam Richardson) plays the family a series of pre-recorded video messages from Mabel in which she blows up family secrets and teases more to come in future installments, forcing her dysfunctional offspring to settle old grievances and open up to each other in ways they haven’t in years.

The stellar cast includes Mabel’s children (Margo Martindale and Henry Winkler), Martindale’s many kids, played by Judy Greer (living with her teen son in an RV); Billy Magnussen (living in Russia after he arranged a data leak in the name of social justice); Timothy Simons (a widower, raising his teen daughter, Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher); Casey Wilson (in the midst of severe marital woes); and Scott MacArthur (who has a beard). Another important family member is Mabel’s wife of the last few years (Ann Dowd), who was not able to be in the same place as Mabel when she died (because of COVID restrictions) and is desperately trying to not lose track of her body in the aftermath, so she can oversee the funeral arrangements.

After the initial couple of calls, most of the interactions are done in smaller groups, with different family members working through the information that has been released via grandma’s videos (including a particularly juicy reveal in which she claims one of Martindale’s kids isn’t actually a sibling). But there are deeper and years old conflicts and rivalries that need dealing with and resolving as well. The tone of the film is fairly breezy, but there are occasional moments of weighty drama that these actors are more than able to handle. There’s a particularly lovely exchange between Martindale and Dowd that had me near tears. And Fisher has a couple of nice moments, especially when it becomes clear that she had a close relationship with Mabel (her great grandmother, for those keeping track).

The issues some may have with Family Squares have to do with the aesthetics of the camerawork. Zoom calls aren’t especially captivating from a visual standpoint, and while it’s pretty clear that each of the participants were sent an additional camera to set up in their location to give the filmmakers some options in terms of footage, that second camera angle is usually just a static, overhead shot or an alternative view of the actor at their computer. The power of the performances cuts through some of these issues, but after a while, the novelty of the Zoom POV wears thin. The only truly unnecessary element of the film is a narration by Rob Reiner, whose audio sounds weirdly echoey and detached from the rest of the movie. And the Big Reveal of who he is to this family lands with a resoundingly dull thud.

Still, the film is a harmless amusement that I’m sure many large families will see themselves in, and it’s that recognition and insight that elevate the production above its limitations.

The film is in a limited theatrical run and available via VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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