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By Jeremy Mathews | June 18, 2005

A 10-day car trip with the ultimate dysfunctional family, “The Talent Given Us” is a cross between a road movie, a documentary and a therapy session. Andrew Wagner has crafted a funny and touching character-driven drama by having his eccentric family members play themselves. The result is a painfully and hilariously authentic observation of a family that loves each other despite very strained relations.

“I’m not in therapy five days a week because you were a good mother,” Emily tells Judy after she lands in the airport in New York. After a bland later-year life of health problems and crossword puzzles, she and her husband Allen are at the stage when they don’t know their children as well as they used to and don’t know how good they were at the parenting game.

Allen has probably suffered a stroke and is now heavily medicated and has trouble speaking clearly and walking. He often has a straw dangling from his mouth as he struggles to stay in reasonable financial conditions and keep some pride. The drugs have killed his sex drive, but Emily still has a libido and is frustrated by Allen‘s lack of interest. As traumatizing as it is for anyone to think about their parents’ sex life, Wagner gets credit for having the nerve to record it in the DV movie’s documentary-like form.

Their older daughter, Maggie, still lives in town, but their distant son Andrew and younger daughter Emily, who has a small part on “ER” in real life and the movie, live in Los Angeles. Allen and Judy run into some old friends on the street who say they have a job for Andrew, who can’t be reached due to being on the same phone circuit as “American Idol” voting and simply not being home. So Judy decides she must see him and apologize for not being a good mother. Emily asks, “Why not apologize to us?” Judy responds that Andrew is more sensitive.

Judy Wagner, playing some version of herself, is a recognizably amusing neurotic taken to an extreme. Watching Judy order at a restaurant is worse than Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally…” and then she still isn’t happy when her order arrives. After picking up Emily from her flight, she demands the family stay on the highway until they get to Los Angeles, then once the trip is under way realizes that it’s foolish and demands that Allen turn the car around. Emily, who adamantly opposed the trip when her mom ordered it, keeps the trip going.

The entire Wagner family displays a great deal of bravery in their willingness to bear all their inner emotions. Andrew makes himself the Godot of the piece, as his parents and siblings discuss the future when they see him as if it will solve all the problems. Of course, it won’t, but the film serves as a way for Andrew and his family, whose emotions he turns into “fiction,” to work out of guilt and other issues.

The movie suffers from the common road movie problem of having no real plot drive, and so relies on the strength of its characters for its momentum. The film succeeds because the family is fascinating combination of unique personalities. It occasionally falters, however, because these neurotic and troubled people aren’t exactly ones that you want to spend a lot of time with before you know them well, and at times they seem to be simply bickering.

“The Talent Given Us” is one of those films that stays ambiguous about how much is true and how much is manufactured for the sake of storytelling. Wagner achieves a certain intimacy that couldn’t be captured with a camera present in a standard documentary, and couldn’t be recreated by anyone other than a close relative.

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