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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 28, 2008

Anyone who says they’re looking forward to yet another movie about an estranged son/daughter returning to spend the holidays with their dysfunctional family is either trying to drum up interest in their “Family Stone 2” spec script or is flat out lying to you.

Falling into neither of these categories, I admit I felt no small amount of trepidation upon sitting down to watch Zackary Adler’s “Familiar Strangers,” in which estranged son Brian Worthington (Shawn Hatosy) returns to the little town of Staunton, VA at Thanksgiving to see his family for the first time in three (or four, depending on who you ask) years. No concrete reason is given for his absence, all we know is that he’s a technical writer who’s just completed his first book, which may or may not be a novel.

One of the reasons “Familiar Strangers” scores better than other movies of its ilk is that the characters are not so oddball and quirky that they immediately put us off. Brian’s parents are typical of their generation: dad Frank (Tom Bower) is gruff and reticent with his emotions, while mom Dottie (Ann Dowd) does her best to avoid conflict and unpleasantness in any form and whenever possible. His siblings are a bit more colorful, though not much more so. Little brother Kenny (DJ Qualls) is a wiseass slacker with dreams of being a photojournalist, while sister Erin (Cameron Richardson) is having a hard time pulling it together following her divorce. Okay, so she drives a Frito-Lay delivery truck and her daughter (Georgia Mae Lively) runs dangerously close to being one of those annoying precocious sitcom-like children, but otherwise these are pretty normal folks, even by Hollywood standards.

Of course, there’s a flipside to making your family “dramedy” more down-to-earth, for while it doesn’t have as far to fall if it bombs, it isn’t going to reach such dizzying heights if it’s really good. “Familiar Strangers” isn’t really good, meandering as it does through a numbers of not-quite crises (Should the kids euthanize Dad’s dog without telling him? What of the annual donkeyball match?) and sedate romantic interludes (Brian hits it off with the local grocery clerk – played by Nikki Reed – but neither seem to be in much of a hurry to move beyond hand-holding). One assumes writer John Bell isn’t plagued with a family full of neurotics like, say, Noah Baumbach, so while his movie manages to rise above cliché, it doesn’t have very far to go beyond that.

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