Texas, late summer, a family in the dozen: with only a few simple building blocks, artist-filmmaker Lucy Kerr rearranges domesticity into eeriness in her feature debut, Family Portrait. It all begins with a ritual, the yearly “model family” Christmas card photo, the taking of which is already an ordeal. Katy (Deragh Campbell) is in a hurry to get it over with so she and her boyfriend Olek (Chris Galust) can depart. But suddenly the mother goes missing, her absence putting everything on hold. Over a seemingly endless day Katy asks after her mom, combing through all the places she could be at to no result. Throughout its slim runtime at 78 minutes the film shapeshifts again and again; its tone moves from jovial to unnerving to anxiously oneiric as we follow Katy deeper into herself in the hope to, paradoxically or not, meet her mother halfway.

Family Portrait deals with inexplicable loss, but one that is contained, repressed, inarticulate. If Katy has not literally lost her mother, the absence is strong enough to become the film’s driving force. But what keeps creeping up in conversation is the actual loss of a relative to an unknown virus. Without exposing too much of the COVID reality that gripped the whole world not so long ago, Kerr alludes to the fact that we still haven’t learned how to talk about such traumatic passings. What’s omitted is also left offscreen, sharing is a whisper, mutuality is hard to reach. If the photographic medium fascinates us by giving reality its own image––one that’s separate from reality––cinema re-animates its stasis and shows us life in flux. 

With this film Kerr interrogates the function of a portrait through a family Christmas card, here a signifier of mutually consented repression. Just like the glistening surface of a photo, the smiles and neat arrangement mask subterranean tensions. Lidia Nikonova’s mesmeric use of Steadicam and deep focus opens the film’s first layers made of people and movement, endowing the chaos of children, pets, and parents with levity and grace. Kerr’s background in dance and choreography further translates in the rhythm of every scene where bodies are autonomous yet in sync without the feeling that it’s all pre-noted. It’s also the static takes that let time unfold and arrest the minutes before breakfast, when Katy and Olek talk, rest, and read aloud. ”Where would my mother go when she would leave her empty gaze fixed on me?,” cites Katy from a book we never get to see or know. That very question captures the familiar unease at the core of Family Portrait: how can one be present and absent at the same time?

The more Katy insists, the more the world resists, and this productive interplay owes a lot to Cambpell’s intensity as a performer. She can be searching, yearning, doubtful, and distressed at the same time, inviting multiple interpretations of both her subdued gestures and occasional silences. Kerr and her lead together make up an intuitive team, whose ambiguous energy flows on screen with ease. For a film soaked with doubt and genuine worry, it is an immensely confident work of a promising auteur.

It’s easy to see Family Portrait as a film about familial dynamics (all of which are similarly complex) and a snapshot of an erratic day (all of which are, when the family gathers), but Kerr unearths something buried much deeper. Throbbing underneath the surface is longing. There is also pain in the desire to be understood, to connect, to belong, all inscribed into the domestic space with every one of its if-clauses. Even without spelling out the simmering tensions that grip any of the characters and chart their conversations as both fleeting and somehow fixed in illegible, collective trauma, Kerr’s writing picks at the open wound that is human intimacy. Dialogues are sometimes sketched, or if they are left to unroll, parts of them remain muted. There has never been such a thing as an omniscient narrator. Unreliable, but together is the best we can hope for, as Family Portrait shows.

Family Portrait had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival.

Grade: B

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