Laura Steinel. That's a name you'll want to remember. You'll want to remember to turn and run the next time you see it within a mile of a movie's credits. That's if there's a next time. Having endured her feature debut, I suspect it's très unlikely this first-time writer-director will be encouraged to write or direct a second time.
Family is less a film than a cinematic recycling center. Reviewers have referred to it as a "dramedy." A better word might be malady. It's not just lazily formulaic. It's an 85-minute outbreak of appropriation symptomatic of our culture's comfort with sampling, sequeling and remaking.
Taylor Schilling stars as Kate Stone, yet another female character who works too much, drinks too much and feels too little. As the movie opens, we find her waking up at the office, having nodded off on a pile of paperwork.
Steinel clearly has a compulsion to deploy pointless detail. An inexplicable running gag involves Kate frowning at the company coffeemaker as it splurts defectively into single-serving mugs. She does this the morning we meet her and at intervals throughout the picture, though it possesses zero ultimate significance.
What matters here is that, at the beginning, Kate is all business. There's no room in her life for friends or family. We know this from her response when her brother (Eric Edelstein) asks her to babysit Maddie, the 11-year-old niece she's never met, so he and his wife (Allison Tolman) can attend to a family crisis ("We've asked everyone"). Kate eventually says yes, then asks her secretary to google her brother's address.
Bryn Vale portrays Maddie, the regulation tween misfit. As the Derivative Movie Playbook dictates, she's an outcast at school and not all that perfect a fit at home. Mom and Dad pay for ballet lessons. She sneaks next door to learn karate (Vale's a black belt in real life). They want her to go to the prom. She thinks she's a witch and meets a boy who takes her to a juggalo gathering instead.
Speaking of pointless details: juggalos. They're followers of trash rappers Insane Clown Posse, like Deadheads with face paint. The film's trailer suggests juggalos figure prominently in the story line. They don't. They're an asterisk, and an underdeveloped one at that.
If ever a picture could have been directed by a GPS, it's Family. From the first frame to the last, we know exactly where things are going, even if we have no clue why we should care. Steinel leaves no cliché unturned. Never do we doubt that Kate and Maddie will bond. Never is there any question the experience will change them both forever. Not for a second do we doubt lessons will be learned.
Because we've seen all this a thousand times in films a thousand times better. Kate will start out ruthless, like Charlize Theron in Young Adult; realize she's been a dick with help from a kid, like Bill Murray in St. Vincent; be welcomed back into the fold she was too busy for, like George Clooney in Up in the Air; and, finally, become a paragon of office parity, like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. Which was already old news in 1988.
Well, I've reached my word count, so I'll conclude with a sentiment apropos of this bromide-driven baloney: You can't choose your family, but you can choose to stay as far as possible from this one. Blood has never been thicker.