100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Family Drama, 10-6

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.

10) Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), directed by Sidney Lumet

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Picture links back here

Eugene O’Neill ensured that Long Day’s Journey into Night was never performed in his lifetime, and so the play (which is largely identical to the movie) is a little long and a little gassy. Then again, you don’t really need an editor if you’re dead. I don’t know that Long Day’s Journey the movie works all the time, nor do I think that there’s any way around the powerful myopia of its sets and situations. But the parts that work are so indicative of the poison that families can store up over a lifetime, so much so that they even reduce down to one-word descriptions. If they made the play into a musical, one can just hear the Prologue: “Edmund is hopeless, Jamie’s a drunk, Mary’s addicted, James is a skinflint, and optimism isn’t here.” There is no conversation that cannot be bent to fit some character’s grinding axe, and because of that there is no conversation which fails to hit home because some character has, whether s/he likes it or not, accidentally revealed a great deal about who s/he is. The movie takes its power not from the arguments themselves but the fact that these are the kind of arguments families have, and the kind of interludes they share. There’s a scene late in the movie where Jamie and Edmund are alone together. Jamie has been out; Edmund has been at home with his parents, who have both been surprisingly vulnerable with him. Jamie speaks out against both in the course of a few sentences, and Edmund, greased by some whiskey himself, strikes Jamie after he makes a cold remark about their mother. It acts like medicine, and Jamie breaks down. “I really believed she had it licked,” he says to Edmund. “I’d begun to hope – if she’d beaten the game – I could too.” Edmund tears up too. It’s the kind of moment that anyone with siblings can recall in his or her own life, albeit maybe a little less compressed. The push to physical violence, to rivalry, always simmers beneath the surface. Yet there can be immense tenderness between them as well which so often requires the stretch of years needed to build up resentment, too. The first time I saw Long Day’s Journey I thought there was too much screeching. Only recently have I come around, and started to appreciate the quiet balance that O’Neill’s words and this absolutely stunning cast (Richardson, Hepburn, Robards, Stockwell) implement when everyone’s too worn out to fight any longer.

9) We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), directed by Lynne Ramsay

In The Lady Vanishes, Iris has the devil’s own time trying to convince someone else on the train that Miss Froy is a real person who has left real tracks and thus is really missing. Part of the problem is that a conspiracy has kidnapped Miss Froy; part of the problem is that an inconveniently timed head injury (and/or the fact of Iris’ womanhood) has given everyone a reason to doubt her. Much the same problem exists in the Khatchadourian household for Eva (Tilda Swinton), who simply cannot convince her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) that their son is evil. Only once does Kevin turn into a tiny demon for his father, and it doesn’t last long enough for Franklin to draw any conclusions. It seems obvious that Franklin should trust his wife, but doing so would call for him to trust something outside his own five senses. It is more logical, from Franklin’s perspective, to believe that Eva—who probably drinks a little too much, who is already temperamentally disinclined to being the mother of a tiny human, who has put a wonderful career traveling the globe on hiatus—is simply overreacting. Not only does little Kevin act like he’s infatuated with his dad, but it would be impossible for nearly any child to be as satanic as Kevin unless he had escaped from the set of The Omen. The movie ends the way it does because Kevin chooses Eva, with all of the ugliness that involves. He chooses her as the target of his aggression before he lands a younger sister, who is too weak to resist him. Then Eva becomes his chief witness, although Kevin walks a fine line here to put Eva in that position: he must leave evidence which is too bold to ignore but must never be seen in connection with those crimes. Presumably Franklin figures out that his son is a dangerous sociopath, although he’s not there at the end of the movie to ask about it.

We Need to Talk About Kevin stands out as an especially strong family drama because it does as good a job as any movie I’ve ever seen in showing how people are stuck with their families. Eva, who thrives on motion and faraway adventure, is immutably stuck with the family she’s helped to create. Even when Kevin has been imprisoned for his deeds, Eva can’t escape him. The town revolts against her in predictable ways; she is the mother of a school shooter, if we extend the definition of that phrase out a little bit, and she is the only remaining person to blame. Much of the early stretch of this movie focuses on how hard the hammer falls on her. One wonders if Kevin left her alive as a mere witness, or if he was smart enough to know that whatever torture he had in mind for her would only be extended by the fact of her solitude in the face of a town’s withering hatred. There’s nothing for Eva to do about her situation but wait and preserve and stand as firmly as she knows how; in other words, even the absence of family means that she’s stuck.

8) The Squid and the Whale (2005), directed by Noah Baumbach

Another day, another story about brackish familial conflict. The Squid and the Whale is a standout family drama because it believes the people in this family are, up to a point, capable of change. It may be too late for Bernard, who has watched himself become invisible in the world and now, again, in front of his wife and sons. It would be easy to say that his spate of unsuccessful writing has embittered him, but that might be charitable; I can’t see how writing a critically acclaimed best-seller would fix what’s wrong in his heart. But everyone else changes. Joan becomes a reasonably successful writer and finds avenues to be her own boss, to assert herself as a person tired of being a supporting actor in her own life. (The Squid and the Whale is not even ninety minutes long, and the movie’s general disinterest in Joan compared to the other three Berkmans is, at best, disappointing.) Frank learns a great deal about adults, which changes him significantly. Already dangerously pubescent, the scourge of library books across Brooklyn, what makes him arguably the movie’s most interesting character is how he realizes what every child comes to understand: adults are imperfect and clueless, too. Many children have this epiphany a long time before Frank does, and the fact that this immense change in his home life, complete with little complications like room decorations and what to do with the cat, coincides with puberty makes for a bludgeoning few months. Frank is turned off by his father’s restless one-upmanship and inspired by Ivan’s daffy calm, and we can see him choosing a way to enter his adolescence and perhaps even his adult life.

No one reflects this ability to change more than Walt, of course, who changes multiple times. He sides with his father from the get-go, even before anyone mentions divorce. Of everyone, he is probably the cruelest character in the movie because of his frequent opportunities to express that particular urge with his mom, his brother, his girlfriend, etc. At the end of the movie, after he’s been sent to see a counselor because he tried to pass off a Pink Floyd song as his own at the school talent show, the counselor manages to uncover an interesting memory. Walt remembers a lovely memory with his mother that has nothing to do with his father; the woman he has turned into the ur-bitch in his mind—assisted by but not entirely based on his father’s words and deeds over the past years—is nothing of the sort. The movie ends on this note, opening up a possibility that Walt might turn into a sympathetic person once again, might learn to live his own life rather than becoming his dad’s equally pathetic avatar. There’s potential for the Berkmans to become like the Tyrones, but The Squid and the Whale is not so pessimistic. There’s a chance for detente somewhere down the line; three of these people may even learn to like one another again.

7) Fiddler on the Roof (1971), directed by Norman Jewison

One of the most moving lines of any movie I know is in Fiddler on the Roof, which feels weird to type but is unambiguously true. Tevye (Topol, who is in my mind the definitive Tevye), speaking in his characteristic aside, laments the choice in front of him: reject his religious tradition or his daughter, who has fallen in love with a Christian. He considers “accepting” his daughter’s choice of a husband, but can’t. “If I try and bend that far,” he thinks to himself, “I’ll break.” Over the course of the movie, Tevye has bent further and further than he thought he could for the sake of his grown-up daughters. Tzeitel manages to convince her father to break a promise to Lazar Wolf, the wealthy but aging butcher, so she can marry childhood sweetheart Motel. Hodel follows her beloved, the radical Perchik, to his exile in Siberia so she can marry him there; she and Perchik had not even asked for Tevye’s permission to marry (although Tevye, that smarmy sonuva gun, gives it to them anyway). Neither Tzeitel nor Hodel, however, married outside the faith. Motel is exceedingly similar to Tzeitel in virutally every way, including, of course, faith. Perchik, though a red, is still Jewish; besides, Tevye knows and can’t help but like the passionate young man, even if he seems “a little crazy.” Chava, who essentially rejects her religion for a boy, makes the deepest cut, and Tevye never forgives her entirely. He mutters something for his wife, Golde, to yell out, tearfully, to Chava and Fyedka, but the last word he speaks to his third daughter’s face is “No!”

Fiddler on the Roof doesn’t explicitly show how much time passes, but it is long enough, at least, for Tzeitel and Motel to have a child. In that year and change, the milkman whose family seems like a tertiary concern at the outset – behind God, naturally, and then well short of the workings of the town of Anatevka – is forced to reckon with how his family refuses to stay still. God is God. Anatevka is Anatevka. But Chava, as he reminisces quietly and hauntingly, has grown up. “Sunrise, Sunset,” which is sung over Tzeitel’s wedding, is unbearably sentimental for the young and childless. All the same, I’m sure that many parents recognize there’s something valuable and true at the bottom of that bottle of spray cheese. The scene itself is simple and moving. Jewison does not fool around with his camera while the song with a sad see-sawing melody plays; he uses close-ups of Tevye, Golde, Motel, Tzeitel, Hodel, Perchik, Lazar Wolf, Yente, and so many more. Young people and old people are shown behind the intertwined wicks of braided candles, with a multitude of others just the same behind them. Above them all, on an overhang, sits the half-smiling Fiddler on the Roof, the knowing Aubrey McFate of the village who signifies it won’t be all broken glasses and bottle dances for the Motel and Tzeitel. It is especially sad that the pogrom occurs during the reception of Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding – I’ve only ever watched that scene once, because it hurts so much – but we should know it’s coming. The change in Tevye’s town is paired with the change in Tevye’s family, and it happens over and over again. “Do You Love Me?” is sung; almost immediately afterwards, Perchik is arrested and Hodel follows him. Chava marries her Gentile and the Jews are expelled from Anatevka for good. Fittingly, the closing number, “Anatevka,” is about the townspeople’s deeply sublimated love for their impoverished hamlet; in much the same way, Tevye is forced to understand his wife and three eldest daughters only after events have gone too far for him to change them.

6) Boyhood (2014), directed by Richard Linklater

There’s only one scene in Boyhood where the elder Mason disappoints the younger one. Mason’s dad has been driving around a cool little sports car for a while, but he eventually sells the car to someone else in order to buy a minivan that better suits his role as the full-time dad of a little person. Mason is deeply hurt. You said you’d give me that car for my birthday, he says. His father has no memory of any such promise, nor, he says, would he commit to that. It’s clear that it’s the kind of thing that the man Mason used to be would say offhandedly. Why wouldn’t he have the car years later? Why wouldn’t he tell his son that he’d pass it on? Why would the kid remember one moment? What else could possibly intervene? It’s not merely the kids who change, though of course Mason and his older sister Sam are unrecognizable over the course of a decade. (Aside from the obvious logistical problems, this is why there are so few good movies about children growing up, and one of the subtly brilliant things about Moonlight. Kids, unless you really hammer down some quality about them—not an interest or an eccentricity, but a deeply embedded character trait—seem to change too fast. This is why Chiron, who is typically so reserved, works throughout all three stages of his movie. Boyhood, which is admittedly more fluid in its shooting and writing, doesn’t have traits like that for its kids.) Who could have guessed that Mason would have such an eye for photography as a teenager, or that Sam would turn out to be a fairly conventional young adult?

Mason, Sr. and Olivia are more classical examples of changing people. Olivia is one of those intelligent, motivated people whose judgment when it comes to picking a mate is just utter garbage. She gets more knowledgeable, more open, and more ambitious in each year, and yet her relationships with men fall through. Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that when she breaks up with Jim, it doesn’t require a rapid and stunning exodus from that town itself the way she and her children had to flee Bill and his terrifying alcoholism. (Sam and Mason have gotten fairly close with their step-siblings. Will we see them again? they ask Olivia. I don’t know, she says; it turns out that, to be the best of our knowledge, they don’t.) The transition from shift-to-shift worker to professor is one of the most understated and most impressive elements of the movie’s plot. Mason, Sr. grows up too, from a life without seatbelts to a life where he tiptoes around the performative religiosity of his in-laws. He gets a real job after tooling around in a band for a while; it’s one of those bands that inevitably gets successful once he’s gone. He is a good father to Sam and especially Mason once he comes back to them; whether or not he’d have been any better as a full-time dad in their formative years is another question entirely, and one that I’m more inclined to answer in the negative. Sam and Mason are thrown around half a dozen different circumstances in their young lives; Mason, Sr. would have almost certainly walked away at some point, and he would have been just another deadbeat.

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