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 Crumband of course, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
Enjoy the list and please suggest your own favorites in the comments.
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.
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 first entry of the Dogme 95 film movement,‘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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s follow up to Boogie Nights, his beautifully sad ode to makeshift family units, was once again a meditation on the ties that bind, whether by blood or marriage. The epic-length film focuses on a vast assortment of lost souls living in the San Fernando Valley area of L.A., the action limited to roughly a 24-hour period. Instead of the sunny city streets, we’re often forced into bedrooms and hallways, watching heartbroken sons and daughters implode internally until a wounded breaking point causes them to snap. Likewise, Magnolia is more interested in the interior lives of its characters than in capturing the cultural vibe of Los Angeles, although it also does that casually without calling great attention. It’s a film in which children are used, neglected and abandoned, over and over, creating warped adults out of broken kids. Its characters are all on the verge of collapse, as if carrying a burdening weight which they can no longer support. Magnolia is one from the heart, a boldly confident and stylistically brash behemoth of a film.
If you’ve ever dealt with depression, you’re likely familiar with the saying: “It’s not the end of the world.” Well, what happens if it really is? We meet Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding day, her sprawling family valiantly attempting to keep the peace. Her divorced parents are seated at the same table, her mother alone, and her father in the company of two women roughly the same age as Justine and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). As the wedding verges on disaster, we learn that a planet called Melancholia is about to pass by Earth in the near future. It becomes apparent that Justine suffers from a crippling depression as she quietly goes about sabotaging her own wedding, much to the chagrin of everyone in attendance. After the aborted ceremony, Claire does her best to look after her depressed sibling, but as this planetary event looms closer, she too begins to lose faith. Even her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), a man of practical science and good common sense, cannot fathom the destruction of all life on Earth, leaving Justine to take command, witnessing the end, in a detached state of calm, surrounded by her trembling family.
Pink Flamingos (John Waters)
Perhaps the purest example of John Waters‘ trademark brand of putrid camp — which is more of a compliment than it may seem —retains all of its squirmy, queasy power even decades later. A film untouched by time, Waters dumps his audience eyeballs-first into a sleazy competition to surmise who is the filthiest person alive, a much coveted title in this twisted world, chock full of hauntingly alien camerawork and bizarrely timed zooms. The current title-holder, Divine, is living under cover with her inherently depraved family in a trailer in Maryland. The family includes a brother with a sexual proclivity for poultry and an adult-baby mother who lives in a playpen and eats nothing but eggs. She even embarks on a love affair with the Egg Delivery Man, the consummation of which we’re mercifully spared from witnessing. The first entry in Waters’ Trash trilogy with Desperate Living and Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos is a deliriously funny and truly shocking, must-see midnight movie classic.
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
Perhaps the quintessential dysfunctional cinematic family, the Tenenbaums are all looking for redemption, catharsis, and love, but thus far have only found misery. The children were all prodigies, geniuses some said, assured of their uniqueness and importance from a dangerously young age, told they would go on to do great things. But something went wrong along the way. The parents, Royal (Gene Hackman) and Ethel (Anjelica Huston), split up ages ago, but never divorced, leaving the family in a strange emotional limbo. When Royal turns up again, years later, informing his family that he’s dying of cancer, the children are drawn back together into that old house and old family rhythm. Wes Anderson‘s whimsically hopeful The Royal Tenenbaums demonstrates that when it comes to family, there always remains the open prospect of a redemptive second chance.
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
“A family should be the most wonderful thing in the world, and this one’s just gone to pieces,” laments Little Charlie (Teresa Wright) whose Mother has fallen into a depression, stuck in a toilsome rut. One day, a telegram arrives, informing the Oakley family that Uncle Charlie, after whom their daughter is named, will be coming to visit. Elated, the family readies for their Uncle’s arrival, ignorant of the two detective’s hot on his heels. The most tragic element of Little Charlie’s plight, as she realizes that her uncle may be a widow-murdering sociopath, is that the Oakley’s are not a dysfunctional family at all. That is, until Charlie arrives, bringing bad blood and sinister intentions along with him. Much of the fun of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Shadow of a Doubt lies in watching the silently malevolent reactions of Joseph Cotten‘s Uncle Charlie as the family dotes on him, each member unaware of his murderous plans, except, of course, for Little Charlie.
Short Cuts (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman‘s Short Cuts could be viewed as either a condemnation or a defense of the American family. It’s a story with nearly 25 main speaking roles, the paths of which crisscross each other over three days in Los Angeles. There are no heroes and no villains, everyone flawed and looking for love in their own misguided ways. We meet several extended families, but only two true innocents, an eight-year old boy and a young female cellist, both of whom will die tragically, their deaths sorrowfully mourned by the reeling loved ones left behind. Inspired by the writings of Raymond Carver, alcohol is frequently consumed by characters, sometimes resulting in chaos and other times, happiness as it does with Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits‘ characters, who only seem contented with one another when they’re drunk. A Swiss watch of a film, manufactured into a masterpiece of offhandedness, Short Cuts could be considered the most defined example of the aesthetic which has come to be known as Altmanesque.
Indeed, joint custody blows, but even the marriage that preceded it wasn’t so hot. Noah Baumbach‘s The Squid and The Whale splendidly portrays a middle class Park Slope family as they navigate a treacherous divorce, the two sons taking opposing sides in this familial war. The opening line sets up everything without announcing itself too firmly, as the family readies for a recreational tennis match: “It’s mom and me versus you and dad.” Every member of this feuding family are hilariously rendered with immaculate attention to ’80s period detail, including a cringe-worthy screening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Even at his nastiest depth, Jeff Daniels‘ Bernard remains an dryly charismatic albeit tragic figure, for whom we feel pity because we secretly love him. Baumbach’s biggest triumph may have been the charmingly affectionate portrayal of this wounded family unit, a reminder that dysfunctional does not necessarily mean unsympathetic.
The Longhetti family are the loud ones on the block, the house with children’s toys littered across the lawn and a crumpled bicycle in the driveway. The long-suffering matriarch, Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is an emotional manic with a wide-open heart, a woman so hellbent to make everyone happy that she gradually unravels, one disappointment at a time. By the point that Mabel is hospitalized for her mental breakdown, writer-director John Cassevetes has rendered this family so vividly, we can understand everyone’s point of view with heartbreaking clarity. We know how desperately Mabel loves her family, almost killing herself to please her exhausted husband, Nick (Peter Falk). “Tell me how you want me to be,” Mabel begs of Nick early on. “I can be that. I can be anything.” There are few performances in cinema as arresting and kinetic as Rowlands’ Mabel, a woman simultaneously capable of bringing an audience to tears and then scaring them half to death. Even at the darkest point of Mabel’s madness, we cannot remove from our memories the tender words she spoke to her children: “I never did anything in my whole life that was anything, except I made you guys.” The preoccupied kids are barely listening, but we hear it.
Little Men is now in limited release and expanding.