Surviving Family opens with arguably the worst birthday ever committed to cinema, at least within the first 10 minutes, as the matriarch of the Malone family leaves her husband and three children at the dinner table, where they are poised to enjoy daughter Terry’s birthday cake, to go into the yard and hang herself from a tree. Can you say “irreparably damaged youth,” friends?
Cut to many years later, and Terry (Sarah Wilson) has returned to her hometown with fiancé (Billy Magnussen) in tow, hoping for a quick, no frills marriage before leaving for good. As she meets up with her sister Jean (Tara Westwood), her father (Bill Sage) and her new stepsister (turns out Dad was stepping out when she was younger), wedding plans become ever more complicated. As the family spends more time with each other, past drama is finally addressed, from the flawed perception of Mom’s suicide to the younger brother (Johnny Hopkins) in-and-out of rehab.
Filmmaker Laura Thies’ Surviving Family is one of those films that is considerably difficult to review, mainly because it is just a competent bit of filmmaking with solid performances and story. Nothing particularly stands out as a positive or a negative; the film just finds that middle and lives there.
Perhaps I can better illustrate my point with the cinematography. One would watch this film and see that everything is lit well, everyone is wonderfully in focus and the composition is as on-point as one would hope to see. Nothing untoward or lacking. That said, it feels flat; there aren’t very many instances of true definition via depth of field, so the image is just there. It’s not a bad or ugly image, it just isn’t particularly striking.
To its credit, the film manages to provoke some thought regarding family, and the cycles that can spin from generation to generation. As Terry comes to grips with her past, she is embarking on her own familial future. Will the same mistakes be made? How much of what afflicted her mother could be waiting to damage her? Are we ever truly free of our own past, or just doomed to repeat it over and over again?
Again, just because Surviving Family doesn’t overwhelmingly excel for the better or worse doesn’t mean it is a poor endeavor. Hardly, this is a fine film made by a filmmaker who knows what she’s doing, performed by actors that more than know their skills. And if that’s what you’re looking for, and as a bare minimum that is what you should be hoping for, then Surviving Family delivers.
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