Review: Relative, a Genuinely Chicago Film, Tells the Story of a Rogers Park Family Going Through Change

Relative is indeed relative and it’s more than wordplay. The film is a family story that encompasses many aspects of the lives we live in its 97-minute running time. This fourth film by Chicago filmmaker Michael Glover Smith (Mercury in Retrograde) is a dramedy about young love, old love, empty nesting, drug use, child-raising, depression and anxiety, breakups and reunitings. 

Set mostly in the Frank family’s grand old Victorian home (on Newgard Avenue in Rogers Park), Relative introduces us to the elders Karen (Wendy Robie) and David (Francis Guinan), and their four children: Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts), Evonne (Clare Cooney), Norma (Emily Lape), and Rod (Keith D. Gallagher). Rod is an Iraq War vet suffering from PTSD and missing his ex-wife Sarah (Heather Chrisler) and their son, Davey (Gabriel Solis). Mix in assorted friends, mates, ex-mates and a couple of kids for good measure.

The film exists almost in real time, starting the night before the college graduation of Benji, the youngest and their oops child, and ending as visitors depart. Norma drives up from Iowa and Evonne, Lucia (Melissa DuPrey) and their daughter Emma (Arielle Gonzalez) arrive by train from Madison, Wis. Benji skips the neighborhood potluck dinner to meet a friend for pizza (tavern style, not deep dish, which is for tourists) at Hopleaf Tavern, one of many featured Chicago locations. He’s attracted to a girl across the room and chats up Hekla (a funny, adorable Elizabeth Stam), a theater major and wannabe actor; the two were in the same geography class. There’s instant chemistry. 

Benji graduates and the family returns home to celebrate, joined by Uncle Joe (Chicago character actor H.B. Ward, seen in many productions at A Red Orchid, the Artistic Home, Timeline, etc.) and Aunt Stevie (Cheryl Hamada). Benji ducks out of his party because he wants to see Hekla again and ends up bringing her back to the celebration. 

Relative doesn’t have much of a plot but it has an ensemble of deliciously realistic characters engaging in everyday activities. There’s a funny dance party scene after Benji and Hekla arrive at the graduation party. Near the end of the party, David and Karen announce they’ve decided to sell the house where they’ve lived for 30 years. It’s upsetting to everyone in various ways and then the decision sort of fizzles. Evonne and Karen go for a late-night run and fall down on the grass, exhausted; they have an intense and revealing conversation about their relationships. The film is made up of many such moments, as well as meals, memories, minor disputes, and surprise announcements.

Writer-director Smith is author of the excellent film history, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, and an academic as well as a filmmaker. He lets the actors flow into their own characters; you sense there’s a certain amount of improvised dialog in this scripted film.

Smith and cinematographer Olivia Aquilina engage in some clever filming devices, including extensive uses of pans to indicate time passage and connections among characters. The most elaborate is a 30-second pan that begins with the family walking out the front door—we watch them through the living room window—and pans slowly from room to room around the house until we meet the family again returning from graduation. The film’s music (curated by Cait Rappel) sensitively supports each scene and mixes in a variety of genres. Much of the music is from sonaBLAST! Records (The Big Sick), a Louisville music publishing and placement company.

The screenwriting is excellent with many lines you have to quote. For instance: Karen and David are in bed discussing their children. 

David: “Maybe if I didn’t always ignore the shortcomings of our children they might have turned out better….”

Karen: “Do you think our kids are that bad? It’s not like they became Republicans.”

Smith’s ensemble of mostly Chicago actors are superb in this kitchen-sink drama. Francis Guinan, a veteran Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member (Grand Concourse, The RembrandtDownstate and many more) is a totally believable David, husband, father and grandfather; he demonstrates his empathetic acting style in these relationships. Wendy Robie (“Twin Peaks,” The People Under the Stairs) has performed at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and theaters around the city. The performance by Cameron Scott Roberts (“The Walking Dead” and a recent DePaul theater grad) won the Grand Jury Award for Best Performance at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa in March. 

Relative was produced by Brian and Jan Hieggelke’s NewCity Chicago Film Project.

Relative screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., today at 7pm; and at 8:15pm on Wednesday, June 15, and Thursday, June 16. Each screening will be followed by a Q&A with select cast and crew. Tickets for the second two showings are $12 plus fees, and tonight’s showing offers $20 VIP tickets, which include reserved seating and a post-film afterparty with one beverage. Proof of full vaccination required for all screenings and events; masks must be worn while in the theater venue.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Default image
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.