Familiar indie comedy invites some odd guests to the party
Directed by Laura Steinel
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Bryn Vale, Kate McKInnon
The word “family” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For most it revolves around those biological relatives closest to you. But that’s not the case for everyone. For that curious section of musical fandom known as Juggalos, for example, the word has particular resonance. There, it refers to a kinship among people who share a cultlike devotion to makeup-wearing rap band Insane Clown Posse, a love for Faygo soda and a general distaste for personal hygiene. Family, an indie comedy from first-time writer-director Laura Steinel, cheekily (or so it hopes) co-opts both versions of the word, making for a fitfully amusing, mildly rude sitcom … topped off with cameos by Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.
Steinel (a former staff writer on the Amazon web series “Red Oaks”) clearly watched the 2011 documentary American Juggalo, came up with the premise for Family in all of 60 seconds and thought to herself, “This thing writes itself!” She starts by conceiving of her main character, Kate. Kate (Taylor Schilling from “Orange Is the New Black”) is one of those cinematic corporate executives. You know the type: Uptight, money-obsessed and unloved by their overworked employees and overlooked families.
When we first meet Kate, she’s incongruously running though the Gathering of the Juggalos, covered in clown makeup and absorbing the jeers of countless drunken ICP fans. Goodness gracious! What could have led this woman who loves “Beyoncé and a frisky pinot noir” to such a wacky situation?
Seems that Kate, being such a self-centered corporate go-getter, hates kids (and pregnant women and parents and breeding in general). This is driven home amply in the film’s opening moments when she crashes an office baby shower just to inform the mother-to-be that she’s being cut out of a big account.
Like some “Twilight Zone” universe, Family immediately dispenses its main character some heavy-handed karma. Seems that Kate’s brother and sister-in-law (Eric Edelstein and Allison Tolman) have a family emergency and must leave town immediately. They’re going to need Kate to look after her 11-year-old niece, Maddie, for a night. Reluctantly (to say the least) Kate drives from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs (yuck!) to spend the night with Maddie (boring!).
Turns out that Maddie (Bryn Vale) is a large, awkward, mostly depressed young gal who’s more than happy to be free of her parents’ meddling for a night. Mom wants her to be a pretty little ballerina, but Maddie sneaks off to the nearby Taekwondo studio to take martial arts lessons instead. Maddie doesn’t want to wear dresses like other girls. She prefers capes. She doesn’t like cheerleading. She likes playing with swords. And magic. Clearly, she’s not living up to her parent’s middle-class expectations. Kate, having little practice dealing with children, bluntly advises her niece to, “have some dignity. Take control of your life!”
Naturally, Maddie’s mom and dad get stuck out of town, and Kate is prevailed upon to look after the kid for a whole entire week. Cue the string of comic bits involving poor nutrition, catastrophic advice, wacky work situations and drunken parent-teacher conferences.
At some point poor, friendless Maddie crosses paths with an enthusiastic Insane Clown Posse fan named Baby Joker (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido). B.J. talks to Maddie about his love for ICP. And because he treats her like a normal human, she takes a shine to him. Kate’s a lax substitute parent to say the least—but even she draws the line at her 11-year-old niece hanging out with a clown-faced hoodlum.
Family milks a few decent punchlines out of its juxtaposition of Kate’s selfishness and Maddie’s desperate need for a sympathetic parent figure. “SNL” star Kate McKinnon scores a handful of laughs as an uptight suburban neighbor. And anyone who’s seen “Orange Is the New Black” knows Schilling can milk the privileged white bitch character. Matt Walsh (“Veep”) breezes through as one of Kate’s coworkers but doesn’t get a lot to do.
If you’re OK with sentimental storytelling and cliché characters, Family works just fine. You know those movies in which—over the course of an hour and a half—horrible characters transform into kindly, lovable people? This is one of those movies. Kate even finds time for a scene in which she reconciles with her estranged father. Talk about your busy weeks!
In the end Family is an odd beast. It’s a good-natured, doggedly familiar indie comedy/drama with the now-standard plea for respecting the weirdness of oddballs and outsiders while denouncing pretty cheerleaders (who are all mean girls) and people with good-paying (hence, soul-crushing) jobs. And it all ends with an extended punchline involving a trip to the Gathering of the Juggalos and a cameo by IPC. Though it ultimately and heartwarmingly celebrates the tender kinship of Juggalos (while ignoring the drunken, criminal, overall “scrubby” side of that subculture), its sentimental tidiness is hardly edgy enough for any actual Juggalos in the audience. (Who in their right mind brings a couple of hip-hop clowns rapping about mass murder into the mix if they’re just going to smile and offer a pat moral about loving your family?) Arriving at its promised but considerably less-