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The Most Dysfunctional Families in Cinema

Written by on August 11, 2016 

Little Men 4

The dysfunctional family has been an ever-present image in popular culture for decades: the battling husband and wife flanked by their bratty children are perhaps most frequently employed on garishly trite television sitcoms. In the movies, the gloves are ripped away and the reality shines on what is more often than not left unexposed in the darkness. What’s revealed seems to irrefutably prove that Tolstoy was absolutely correct when he wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Now playing in select theaters is Little Men, the newest film from director Ira Sachs, with whom we recently spoke to about its making. The plot follows two teenage boys in Brooklyn, NY who develop a budding friendship, despite the feuding of their parents over the lease of a local dress shop. The film is already receiving raves from critics, including our own review from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. To celebrate the occasion, we decided to take a look back at the finest examples of dysfunctional families in movies. From the drunks and drug addicts to the swingers and widow-murderers, they’re all here!

As always, a few titles just barely failed to make the list, some of which include: Park Chan Wook’s Stoker (although its main inspiration made it), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, Tim Roth’s The War Zone, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster and of course, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

Enjoy the list and please suggest your own favorites in the comments.

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)

The 400 Blows

A frustrating burden to his parents, young Antoine Doinel (the iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud in his debut performance) coasts through school until a chain reaction of bad decisions and unfortunate coincidences leads this troubled, but happy boy into a life of juvenile delinquency. His parents and teachers are not hateful caricatures, monsters who make Antoine’s life hell. That would be too easy. When he screws up at school, his parents indeed blow their tops, but often fail to follow up with any substantial punishment, preventing the boy from learning about the consequences of life. Unfortunately, when Antoine does learn these lessons, it is far too late: through the bars of a prison cell on his way to an observation center for troubled youths. A sadly funny and warmly insightful look at the irreparable hardships of childhood, François Truffaut‘s The 400 Blows should be considered mandatory viewing for teenagers all over the world.

Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray)

Bigger Than Life

The most endearingly quaint drug addiction film ever made is also one of the most quietly devastating, a breathtaking Cinemascope triumph from Rebel Without a Cause director Nicolas Ray. After a sobering diagnosis, a school teacher (James Mason) becomes addicted to cortisone, informed that he could potentially die without the medication. On the drug, his mood changes, suddenly becoming abusive to his family and arrogant with the parents of his students, putting his very livelihood and career at risk. Uncommonly grim for its time, Bigger Than Life, reveals a yawning chasm of darkness in the sunny landscape of ’50s America, a place where a drug addict can talk his way into a phony prescription simply because of his good reputation as an upstanding citizen. Climaxing in a shockingly disturbing and utterly bleak finale, Ray’s film finds salvation in a place where it’s seldom found.

The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg)


The first entry of the Dogme 95 film movement, Thomas Vinterberg‘s The Celebration, introduces us to one of the most despicable families in Europe. Gathering at their family’s lavish estate to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of their father, Helge, this sprawling family arrives having come from the funeral of their daughter, Linda, who recently committed suicide in this very house. As the birthday speeches commence, Helge’s son Christian reveals an appalling family secret, which at first even his mother cannot believe. After the speech, the room is charged with a crackling tension as we witness this extended family attempt to continue with their evening as if this devastating reveal never took place. But they can no longer ignore this sickening betrayal, crimes which have silently torn the family apart from the inside. The Celebration‘s coldly cleansing final moments hint at signs of hope for this family’s future, but only after the ghosts of the past could be publicly exorcised.

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)

A Christmas Tale

Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch of the Vuillard family has been diagnosed with leukemia just in time for Christmas, a searing announcement which sends shock waves through the lives of her three surviving children, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and Henri (Mathieu Amalric). There is much ancient drama and buried conflict between the various family members, in particular, a feud between Elizabeth and Henri, the source of which remains a secret. As they gather for Christmas, the extended family speculates on what caused the rift between the siblings. At one point, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, the real life daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni), Ivan’s wife, attempts a guess: “I know! He slept with your sister!” Shaking his head, Ivan shrugs: “No, if it were that, it’d be easier.” Free from the obvious emotional fireworks and redemptive payoffs we’ve come to expect from tearful Christmas yarns, Arnaud Desplechin‘s film builds to a moment of fortuitous joy, too wryly intelligent and genuine to waste its time on sentimentality.

Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos)


Often the roots of what makes a family dysfunctional can be found in some well-intentioned attempt to create perfect functionality. Yorgos Lanthimos‘ attention-catching debut Dogtooth introduces us to one such unnamed family, whose children are forbidden from ever leaving the house. The parents feed their children, all of whom are now adults, misleading information, transforming the outside world into an unknowable landscape which frightens and confuses them. Words have different meanings in this house. For example, a zombie is a small yellow flower. A keyboard is, well… I’ll save that reveal for the film. One day, the father brings home a female co-worker to teach his son about sexuality, a move which triggers a twisted rebellion on the part of the eldest daughter, determined to lose her dogtooth and escape this residential prison. After this ruse has been discovered, the father hatefully admonishes the woman, cursing her for meddling with his family by chillingly growling, without a hint of irony: “I hope your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities.”

Grey Gardens (Albert & David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer)

Grey Gardens

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” Little Edie Beale informs us at the opening of the Maysles brothers’ beloved documentary, Grey Gardens. Having seen how she lived in those days, this statement should come as absolutely no surprise. A tender portrait of Little Edie and her mother, Mrs. Beale, famously the cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the film explores how the pair live in the fading dilapidated glory of their once beautiful East New York estate, the titular Grey Gardens, which fell into disrepair as their family’s wealth diminished. Competing for the camera, Mrs. Beale and Little Edie sing songs and proudly show off old yellowing photographs, highlighting youthful accomplishments, seemingly blind to the abjectly primitive poverty in which they dwell. Deeply moving and terrifically entertaining, Grey Gardens is a loving snapshot of one of the most peculiar branches of the American family tree.

Happiness (Todd Solondz)


There is a sense of isolated obliviousness to the characters in most Todd Solondz films, spouting eye-rolling platitudes in a near-constant state of passive aggression, but none more so than in Happiness. Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker) lives a secret life as a pedophile, drugging his wife and children in order to molest his son’s effeminate schoolyard friend. His wife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) has no idea, caustically holding her apparently perfect life over her sister, Joy (Jane Adams) a failed musician still living at home with her parents. No other filmmaker has better captured a frenzied sense of panicked desperation in their characters than Solondz. Note the look of tortured introspective horror on Bill’s face as he drives home, stopping only to pick up the latest issue of some teeny-bopper magazine. When contrasted with Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s self-loathing Allen, who drives home chugging a mickey of vodka, anticipating making love to a consenting adult woman, he seems to wear the same look of grim terror on his face. No matter how taboo or criminal (or even banal as in Joy’s case) the desire may be, there is no acceptance for these broken people because tragically, they cannot accept themselves.

The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)

The Ice Storm

A frigid tragedy of fate takes place in the carefree and sexually permissive air of 1973, where even stuffy businessmen and bored housewives give in to the thrilling allure of temptation. As Thanksgiving weekend approaches, Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen) are silently unsatisfied with their marriage, unbeknownst to their two teenage children, both of whom are already occupied with their own school yard crushes. Ben is having an affair with a housewife (Sigourney Weaver) down the street, a family friend whom they often see at weekend parties. While people go looking for sex, love is rarely mentioned, if ever. There’s an undercurrent of tedium in the lives of the parents, discussions taking on the feel of play-acting, as they go through the motions, their relationships encased in ice. Having said this, Ang Lee‘s The Ice Storm is also a brilliantly humanistic comedy, though the laughs are often painful jabs: the type of blow that hurts a little more due to the frozen winter air.

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