A heartwarming and spectacularly acted visit with a loving but dysfunctional Chicago family, which will have its Indiana debut Saturday. This is an indie gem not to be missed.
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One of the inherent aspects of tiny independent films is the acting can be rather klunky and amateurish. Oftentimes you’re dealing with inexperienced thespians who haven’t spent much time performing for a camera and novice directors who don’t yet have the experience to coach them properly to get the best performance. Dialogue comes out sounding very “read” and emotions are either flat or over the top.
So I was fully dazzled at the uniformly spectacular performances in “Relative,” a new Chicago-set-and-shot drama about a loving but dysfunctional family. The movie is so organic and authentic, it feels like a heartwarming visit with old friends you’ve just met.
This is writer/director Michael Glover Smith’s fourth feature film, and he already demonstrates the mature voice of a confident filmmaker who knows what he wants, and how to get there.
“Relative” will have its Indiana debut this Saturday, Aug. 20, at the Studio Movie Grill in Indianapolis with Smith and other members of the creative time attending and conducting a Q&A. Click here for tickets.
The occasion for the setting of the story is the college graduation of Benji Frank (Cameron Scott Roberts), the youngest child of Karen and David (Wendy Robie and Francis Guinan). They’re middle-class former hippies, happily married with a nice house in the Chicago suburbs. He’s a retired and she’s about to step away from her career as a librarian.
Benji is young and full of joyful enthusiasm, about to take a job with Google as a digital cartographer. (He’ll explain what that is.) On a whim, he sidles up to a girl he barely knows at the bar, a theater major with the distinctively Icelandic name of Hekla (Elizabeth Stam), and they immediately hit it off. She’s distinctively her own person, dressing like a more pastoral version of Annie Hall and fully in command of her own little corner of the world.
The other three, older Frank children are struggling to varying degrees. Norma (Emily Lape) is married with kids in Bettendorf, Iowa, and is worn out with the unending burdens of motherhood. She feels disconnected from her parents and old neighborhood, where people bought an old post office building just so they could have potluck get-togethers.
Evonne (Clare Cooney) is also in a committed relationship with Lucia (Melissa DuPrey), and they have an adorable daughter together. But her first scene takes place in a mental health hospital, and she seems weighted down by unspoken challenges and depression.
Rod (Keith D. Gallagher) is the oldest and most outwardly challenged kid. He’s 34, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who lives with his parents. He spends most of his time in the basement, playing video games, watching porn and smoking weed. He broke up a long time ago with the mother of his child, but just can’t seem to let go.
The Frank parents are vexed by Rod’s spiraling downward, and make supportive but increasingly stern entreaties that he needs to get his act together, find a job and move out. They worry that he might be a Republican, or worse, a Libertarian. At one point David refers to him as a “fungus” growing in his basement, the sort of quip that seems comical but can be deeply piercing.
Normally Rod is the sort of character who is severly otherized in a movie, portrayed as a one-note loser and comic relief. But he gets to show the interior of his pain and longing, especially in a scene where he argues with Benji from atop the house’s loft balcony after the younger brother returns from a night of romantic adventure.
This is one of the best single scenes I’ve seen in a movie this year. It’s full of anger, alienation and pride. Rod’s resentments and fractured soul come spilling out onto the sidewalk.
The family’s dynamics build during a weekend where they’ve all gathered to celebrate Benji’s graduation — festivities the guest of honor can barely be bothered to attend because he’s so fixated on his new crush. There will be confrontations, surprise announcements, reconciliation and aggression.
The Franks will learn things about each other they never knew, including themselves, and reaffirm their bonds even as they acknowledge the gaps that have inevitably grown as they spread out and started their own families.
“Relative” is a quiet movie of great power, humor and warmth. Every single performer knows their character down to the bone. There is never a false or stilted moment. It’s some of the best ensemble acting you’ll see.
This is a gem you don’t want to miss.