“Family Fundamentals,” the new documentary from award-laden filmmaker Arthur Dong, provides a raw and emotional dissection of the pain within families where conservative Christian parents are unable to come to terms with their homosexual offspring. Focusing on a trio of case studies, “Family Fundamentals” never falls into the easy trap of victim-vs.-villain, but instead offers complex stories of flawed families that makes for uncomfortable and frequently tragic viewing. The result is a mature, graceful and extraordinary accomplishment.
The first story (and the only segment where the parent is actually interviewed for the film) presents Kathleen Bremner, a Pentecostal minister who began a ministry to provide support for parents whose children have “become homosexual.” The ministry, sort of an anti-PFLAG, resulted after Bremner’s daughter Susan Jester declared she was a lesbian and became active in the gay rights movement. Complicating the equation is Jester’s son (from a brief marriage to a missionary) David, who is gay and in a long-term relationship with another man. The family has other considerable long-standing issues which have never been properly resolved (most horribly the sexual abuse of Susan by her now-deceased stepfather), and today Bremner and her family exist on parallel plains with the only contact coming from occasional phone calls of a chilly cordiality.
The second story follows Brett Mathews, a one-time First Lieutenant and nuclear missileer in the U.S. Air Force who was witch-hunted out of the service in a 16-month investigation that left him with an honorable discharge but a revocation of his veteran benefits. The Utah-based Mathews, the son of a Mormon bishop, eventually moved to California after coming out to his family. His relationship with his parents disintegrated into a steady stream of phone calls and letters from his parents demanding that he forsake his “condition”; Mathews never acknowledged any communication that questioned his sexual orientation. Mathews’ parents originally welcomed the “Family Fundamentals” camera crew when their son returned home to Utah for his grandmother’s remarriage, but the Mathews clan abruptly reneged on their cooperation after Brett and the filmmakers arrived in Utah. The reunion was brief and not pleasant, and Mathews returned home to another parental phone call demanding that he withdraw from “Family Fundamentals.”
The third story is actually a bit of a stretch: the players are not a biological parent-child coupling but rather an extremely close professional relationship between right-wing ex-Congressman Robert Dornan and his chief of staff Brian Bennett, who lived with Dornan’s family for six years and referred to the politician as “Poppy.” Bennett’s experience was complicated by the dogma of his Catholic faith, the less-than-gay-friendly Republic political agenda and the vitriol of Dornan’s extreme and often outrageous anti-gay rhetoric. (Dornan refused to participate in this film.)
In a recent interview with Genre Magazine, Arthur Dong stated “I don’t do gay pride films”…and “Family Fundamentals” is anything but a proud film. No one here on either side can actually hold their heads high with pride, for a variety of obvious reasons. Strangely enough, the most sympathetic individual here is Kathleen Bremner, who is clearly stuck trying unsuccessfully to embrace both her religion and her family. For Bremner, God (or at least her interpretation of the Bible) prevails and she calmly states: “The Bible says homosexuality is a sin and it’s wrong; that it’s a destructive behavior that will not bring happiness. It’s just wrong. You can’t argue with that.” Bremner emerges as being politely stubborn in her faith and is clearly in deep pain over the disruption of her family, in marked comparison to the strident chagrin of her daughter and grandson (both of whom, quite bluntly, come across as being fairly obnoxious).
For Mathews and Bennett, both men inspire little sympathy. Mathews often wallows in self-pity, claiming he feels like a “fly on the wall” at his family’s reunion and ruing his inability to have a wedding ceremony while his grandmother waltzes away at her ceremony (way to go, granny!). Mathews questions the degree of faith expected of gay people in the Mormon faith, although the cynic could easily point out the Mormon hierarchy has a considerable history of running amok with the basic tenets of Christianity and kicking around their principles to meet the socio-political needs of the day (belatedly outlawing polygamy to gain Utah statehood, ending its discrimination of people of color to build church membership, etc.).
For Bennett, his epiphany came while watching a CNN broadcast of “Crossfire” when New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan offered a decidedly unique interpretation of Catholic history to claim the church was not always anti-gay. Bennett’s efforts to work within the Republican Party to erase its nastier anti-gay residue is detailed at length, yet his willingness to stay silent during years of Robert Dornan’s hostile homophobic rhetoric is a challenge to the audience’s endurance (and, from a political standpoint, it is hard to comprehend how Bennett, as Dornan’s chief of staff, could not see that Dornan’s hateful language was isolating him to the far edges of the Republican movement and ultimately led to his being voted out of office by his exasperated constituents).
“Family Fundamentals” does not give easy answers and pat solutions to the family crises which it documents. Each story ends in a stand-off and icy silence: Dornan later ostracized Bennett for exploiting his trust and will no longer speak with him, Mathews’ family continues to push for him to go straight, and Bremner’s daughter and grandson shake their heads in disbelief as she continues her ministerial work. The hurt which lingers when the film has run its course is one of the most haunting sensations generated by any film this year.
And now, a post-script which I am adding to this review not as a critic but as an ordained reverend: anyone even vaguely familiar with the Bible will know that the only brand of sexual intercourse that is not considered sinful is the union between husband and wife with the sole aim of procreation. All other forms of woo-woo (premarital playtime, recreational sex among married folks, self-satisfaction, and fun-and-games with the neighbor’s spouse) are clearly marked as Biblical sins. Curiously, individuals who thump the Bible to support anti-gay politics and attitudes never focus on the other clearly defined sexual sins.
Of course, there is no problem when one uses the Bible as a guide for leading a decent life, but something is not right when the Bible is turned into a buffet for those to pick certain sins for endless public denunciation and blithefully ignore others as being not-as-terrible to consider. “Family Fundamentals” concentrates on families that dwell endlessly on homosexuality as a Biblical sin as a reason for exclusion. Sadly, no one in the film (from either side) raises the point that Jesus defined the greatest commandment as loving each other and loving God. Hatred and indifference, you see, are not Biblically endorsed.