100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Family Drama, 5-1

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.

5) Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), directed by Woody Allen

(Straightens tie, looks down, looks up nervously at the camera.) Woody Allen movies would be so much better without Woody Allen.

In no picture is that more true than in Hannah and Her Sisters, which is deeply engrossing whenever Allen is off the screen and distracting when he returns. There’s the right mixture of taboo (Elliot is married to Hannah but is sleeping with her sister Lee, and of course Mickey, Hannah’s ex-husband, lands with the other sister, Holly) and frustration (Holly, less successful than Hannah and thus constantly in her debt). There’s sympathy in the movie for Hannah, its resident martyr. She is a well-reviewed actress in New York City, which should inure the rest of us feeling for her, and yet all around her lies this incredible personal detritus. Two husbands have chosen her sisters over her. Lee’s lover, Frederick takes her for granted, seeing her more as a maid or model than a girlfriend. Holly doesn’t have the temperament for failure, which has the predictable domino effect. Hannah’s parents are clueless old folks. Hannah really is sweetness and light, but it is so easy to interpret her good sense and stoicism in the face of her outrageous family as an effort to “grin and bear it” or, worse still, rub it in. Holly and Hannah clash as much as anyone in the movie largely on this basis. Maybe Hannah is just that much better at acting than Holly, but I always give Hannah the benefit of the doubt. In one scene, Hannah offers Holly the money she’ll need to support herself while she transitions from acting to play writing. Does Hannah like that she’s in the position to give out checks? Sure! Is Holly too proud or too self-sufficient to reject what is a genuinely generous offer? Nope!

As Lee, Barbara Hershey plays in my view the most interesting character because she is the only one capable of feeling shame. Shame is not an emotion that Allen has ever been particularly good at depicting; this is a man who derives much of his work from his own life and, amazingly, is still living it. Hershey finds the shame in Lee, though, and channels it into a really fine performance that’s much more than the sum of its weepiness. She’s not the winner of the “worst person in the movie” contest; she may not even be the winner of the awards for “worst person in her own family” or “worst person in her own relationship.” But all the same she deeply feels the wrongness of sleeping with your brother-in-law, of being unable to push him away even when they’re both doing immense harm to someone they both care about. Woody Allen’s movies frequently deal with the topic of indulgence, the sick feeling of being full of indulgence, and the guilt that must be assessed after the fact. What Lee tries to work with is much more than garden-variety guilt, which in Allen movies can be shrugged off with an offhand joke or a raunchy comment; she has real remorse to manage, and although that takes Hershey away from the brunt of the picture and leaves openings for Mia Farrow or Dianne Wiest or, gag, Allen himself, it makes her all the more powerful in her remaining scenes.

4) Shadow of a Doubt (1943), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Shadow of a Doubt makes a serial killer into one of its two protagonists and then sends him home for a while like a college kid coming home for the summer. Everybody comes from somewhere; everyone has, or at least had, a family at some point. If Shadow of a Doubt were a movie made today, it would almost certainly be more interested in the Merry Widow Murderer than in his convenient hidey-hole. Maybe it would show us some old lady being strangled just to get under our skin or whatever. Thank heavens this is a movie from 1943, where I’m not sure one could easily get away with the depiction of geriatric garroting; the movie builds slowly, emphasizing the “shadow of a doubt” that it could be a different man murdering those women. While we as an audience wonder, the movie shows us what Charles’ family is like: perfectly normal, occasionally charming, thrilled to that Charles is coming for a sudden visit. Charles’ sister and brother-in-law are a little simple—the brother-in-law has a single-minded focus on solving murder cases with a next-door neighbor which is the kind of small-town quirk that seems realistic and harmless enough—though his nieces and nephew are much more interesting. Ann and Roger, both young, are precocious, and Ann in particular seems weirdly intelligent. It’s Charlie who’s the star of the family, as sweet and blithe as her mother and clever in a way that neither one of her parents are. Naturally, she is drawn to Charles. It’s easy for her to imagine herself, with the same name and the same active intellect, getting out of her little town and doing exciting things on the other side of the country just like Uncle Charles is…at least, as far as she knows.

The movie’s interest in the family, and the deeply normal family at that, of a serial killer is probably its most haunting theme. Hitchcock was always able to make us believe that any setting could be the seat of something nefarious. A horse race can conceal a pair of star-crossed spies. A carousel can be the site of a life or death struggle. A concert hall can conceal an assassin’s bullet. In this movie, a happy little town in California—which looks surprisingly seedy at night—and a serene house are the masks. The house very nearly becomes deadly twice once Charles decides he can’t afford to let Charlie live any longer. He locks her in the garage with a car pumping out exhaust; he sabotages a stair outside and she nearly falls and breaks her neck. It’s not just the family which is dangerous in the back half of the movie, but the metonym of the house itself. The climactic scene on the train where Charles tries to throw Charlie off to her death is a change not merely because it’s the face-to-face meeting the movie’s been dying to get to. It’s because the two of them aren’t family. No longer does he treat her like his dear niece now that she’s his most dangerous enemy, and the hands-to-neck death he’s parceled out before for strangers is good enough for the girl he tried to kill “mercifully” at her own home.

3) The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

(It’s not precisely a “review,” but my friend Matt and I are still doing Jawn Voyage, the minute-by-minute Incredibles podcast.)

“Mom and Dad’s lives could be at stake,” Violet chides Dash. “Or worse, their marriage!” It’s the great concern of every child who’s ever watched his or her parents have it out in front of them, and the Parr kids know what it’s like to see their parents go at one another from frequent late-night fights. The Parrs are trying desperately to live a normal life in the early ’70s, but Bob is almost singlehandedly holding them back. Violet and Dash pass as best they can as non-Supers, but what that’s done is isolate the two of them. The province of little boys is to compete in schoolyard sports, and Dash has long been barred from such competition given his super speed. Violet has a superpower that any teenager would trade 10,000 Instagram followers for: she can make herself disappear, though the symbolic repercussions are obvious. Meanwhile, as Helen cosplays as a happy housewife, Bob uproots the family almost regularly in his desperate attempts to be Super again, wearing Helen and the kids thin in the process. It’s almost a relief that Syndrome, a supervillain whose motivation was forged in the moment Bob rejected him, decides to exact revenge on Bob; without his help, the Parr kids would almost certainly become latchkey Gen X models of misery. The movie flits effortlessly around that conflict. Helen follows Bob to Nomanisan Island (hee), where he has uncovered Syndrome’s damnable plans, not because she’s trying to back him up but because she thinks she’s tracking an affair. Nor do things improve when she does find him squeezing a thinner, younger woman; as they escape the heart of Syndrome’s complex, she scolds him as she certainly has a right to do. “You keep trying to pick a fight,” he says, “but I’m just glad you’re alive!”

Within families, I’m not sure there is a more difficult relationship than mother and her teenage daughter. Having never been either, I have to take this secondhand, but just in speaking with other folks it sounds like a time that both would like to fast forward through. Aside from Helen and Bob, who at least have the benefit of choosing each other, no relationship in The Incredibles is more fraught than the one between Helen and Violet. Helen, raising three kids and trying to drag a grown man out of his funk more or less by her lonesome, relies on her eldest to make good choices for her younger siblings. That quiet reliance on Violet turns into a vocal and ultimately unfair one once the Parrs are thrown into action. Violet, under pressure for the first time, cannot raise a forcefield strong enough to protect the plane her mom is flying. After the fact, Helen recognizes that she’s asked too much of her daughter and doesn’t hesitate to say so in a more peaceful moment. Violet, for her part, performs as well as any other Parr on the island, freeing them from Syndrome’s imprisonment and quickly coming up with a plan to follow Syndrome’s Omnidroid despite not knowing its precise whereabouts. Obviously, talking it out with her daughter has a better effect than just shoving it under the rug, as the Parrs are so wont to do. The change in both of them is overshadowed by the action sequences which dominate the second half of the movie, but to me it’s one of the key elements of the entire film.

2) Mary Poppins (1964), directed by Robert Stevenson

“A man has dreams,” George Banks intones, “of walking with giants—to carve his niche in the edifice of time.” Few sentences outside of Shakespeare so succinctly describe masculine ambition, and although no one would put David Tomlinson in the same stratum as Olivier or Richardson, his plaintive, matter-of-fact delivery is nonetheless deeply moving. Earlier in the movie, he had crowed: “King Edward’s on the throne! It’s the age of men!” Now he recognizes the complete undercutting of his old-fashioned masculinity. If he hasn’t got a lucrative profession and a team of mostly silent, entirely adoring people at home, then he has nothing. Things are bad enough that he’s letting a chimney sweep with the voice of a wide-mouthed frog give him advice. But it’s the shock to the system necessary to teach him about what it is to have a family as opposed to hangers-on, a lesson that many men in his position never seem able to get around to learning. Nor is it inevitable even within the context of the movie that he should learn this lesson; it is called Mary Poppins and not George Banks for a reason. So much of the movie is about a pair of bored kids being taken on unfathomably fun adventures by their most recent nanny and, along the way, starting to understand their dad a little more than they had previously done. The onus is on Jane and Michael until all of a sudden, it isn’t anymore. The shift to their father’s blind spots is as dramatic as it gets: it climaxes with the frenetic energy of a bank run.

The first book in the Poppins series was released in 1934. By the time the film was released thirty years later, there was a burgeoning, even boiling, sense in common society that the family structures depicted in this movie could not possibly cohere; the movie itself notes the impossibility of this being a loving family, even, until Mary Poppins comes along not as a fixer-upper for the children but as an antidote for the father. The final scene of the movie features George Banks, personally and professionally redeemed, flying a kite with his children, spending the time with them that he’d never done before. As much as I enjoy family dramas which explode like unattended pressure cookers, sending steam and guts everywhere, it’s not the worst thing in the world to watch something decent happen to people instead. Mary Poppins is lip-smacking sweet. What of it? Let ’em skip through the foyer! Let ’em have their thankless and unmerited bourgeois ending! Someone out there deserves that level of unironic joy; which in the cosmology of Mary Poppins requires only a little extra dose of sugar.

1) Eraserhead (1977), directed by David Lynch

Eraserhead film












Image links back here

No satire of family dinner has ever been more uncomfortable than what goes on in that early scene where Henry has dinner with Mary’s family. Mary’s mother is that classic distant mother-in-law nightmare; Mary’s dad is the chirpy type instead, totally unafraid to let fly any private story from his past and totally ignorant of “oversharing” as a concept. Through all this, Henry sits a little apart from the X family, pointedly outside of this family unit. Mary’s dad has come up with some new chickens somewhere and is serving the tiny little critters up individually. Would you like to carve, Henry? he asks. Henry sort of reluctantly takes the carving fork from his host’s hands and stabs the chicken. It immediately starts to leak blood; the wings start to move back and forth. Mary and her father seem more or less nonplussed, despite Henry’s speechless, wide-eyed appeals for help, but Mrs. X is the one who really seems stricken by it. She shakes back and forth, slowly, making indescribable noises from the back of her throat. She leaves the table. Mary leaves the table. The chicken is still bleeding and writhing wings-first. One of the loudest silences I’ve ever seen in a movie follows, though the sounds are entirely in the viewer’s head at this point. Mr. X, bless his heart, saves the day. “Well, Henry,” he says innocently, “what do you know?”

A young man courts a young lady (“young” might admittedly be a touch inaccurate), he meets her family, she moves in with him, they have a child. If there is a wedding, we miss it, and honestly that might be a good thing given the way the rest of the movie goes. We do know that the mother accosts the man, accusing him of having impregnated her daughter, and Henry does the right thing and takes in Mary and her little dearie. “They’re still not sure it is a baby!” Mary shrieks, and there’s good reason to believe otherwise. If it is a baby, it is a nameless thing, a slimy, wet-mouthed little monster wrapped up at all times in its little basket of clothes, head out like the snake in a snake-charming act. It is not long before Mary leaves, fed up with Henry and more fed up with the baby’s throbbing, aching cries. Henry and the child exist uneasily together; both of them are to be pitied, I think. Henry is living in a sad one-room apartment with a haunted radiator and has been abandoned after a short burst of intimacy which seems to have been unenjoyable in its own way. He does not quite understand how to handle this little being, who is disturbing at first but who quickly becomes familiar and pitiable. He has little sores on the parts of his body we can see. When he isn’t crying, he’s wheezing like he can’t catch his breath. Eraserhead may be one of the most surreal movies ever made by a major American director, but it is also a striking indictment of urban poverty and its effect on families already made fragile by their environment, like Jacob Riis on a bad trip.

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