Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Families & Film: Thoughts on 'The Descendants' and 'Beginners'

I’ve always been a sucker for films about families.  I think it’s because there’s always at least some little detail that I’m able to relate to.  Even films that I objectively realize aren’t great films on their own merits can be enjoyable and rewatchable for their portrayals of family life.  Dan in Real Life and The Family Stone are two more recent examples of this. 

Mary Poppins takes top honors
in my latest list.
There are two reasons I’ve been thinking about this.  The first reason is that we’re in the midst of the holiday season, a time that many of us spend with our families.  When I was hanging out with my family over Thanksgiving recently, it got my wheels turning about what my favorite films about families are.  As I am incapable of resisting the urge to make a list for everything, I thought I’d just throw out a quick list for you guys of my five favorite films where one of the central themes is the concept of “family.”  I’m being very strict about this, i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird has a lot of good stuff in there about family but I wouldn’t really say that’s what the movie is “about” (same goes for The Godfather, Star Wars, etc.).  Ya feel me?  Without further adieu:

1.  Mary Poppins
2.  Ordinary People
3.  The Incredibles
4.  It’s a Wonderful Life
5.  Kramer vs. Kramer

List making aside, the other reason I’ve been thinking about “family” films is because I’ve seen two movies recently that primarily dealt with the concept of family as a central theme: Beginners and The Descendants.   The latter is the latest film from one of my favorite directors, Alexander Payne, and stars George Clooney as a man whose wife goes into a coma and leaves their two daughters in his stead.  The situation forces the family to face their issues as they try to deal with her inevitable and oncoming death. 

The Descendants is going to do well and win all kinds of awards this winter, but to me it was the least refined and controlled film from Payne, a director who I credit on my shortlist of filmmakers responsible for making me fall in love with movies.  It suffers heavily from an identity crisis and odd tonal shifts between melodrama and black comedy (Sideways has elements of both but transitions smoothly between them).  Although I think Clooney gave a very good performance, it was not near his best, in my humble opinion.  I did enjoy the film, but suffice it to say it did not reach near the heights of his earlier films. 

Beginners, however, I adored greatly.  It’s a relatively autobiographical film by writer/director Mike Mills, about a 30-something whose father comes out at the age of seventy-eight after the death of his wife of forty-six years.  To boot, the father has terminal cancer.  Beginners is a precisely executed, funny and stylish film anchored by three solid performances by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and the gorgeous Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds).

But unlike The Descendants, the real star of Beginners is the power of the message of familial relationships and their effect on each individual involved.  It hit me during the film how easy it can be to put up our walls with family, even though they are the people we should be putting up walls around the least, ideally.  There’s this natural tension between opening up about they way we really feel about things while doing it in a loving way.  But what Beginners, and what some other films on my list above show, is that forgiving ourselves and our families is the first step in the process of mending a relationship.

It shows us how being open and vulnerable with one another as family members produces understanding, and understanding reveals love.  It shows us how this progression enables us to in turn learn something about ourselves.  Namely, in this case, McGregor’s character learns from his father’s coming out that it’s never too late to be the person you want to be, and that there are few excuses for not trying.  This message is handled with such care and grace that it could have only come from someone who personally experienced it. 

Like some of my other “family” films listed above, Beginners is one I will be watching again and again.