Every single one of us has a family. Whether we grew up in a traditional household or came of age in a less typical environment, everyone has a past and relatives. We see family themes, light or dark, in media everywhere: we love reading stories about unique and captivating bloodlines, seeing movies about outlandish families and following the lives of TV clans for seasons on end. Why? Because we can all relate to a family dynamic in some way.
Many families, real or fictional, are dysfunctional. This makes for great entertainment potential. A movie about a less than normal family always tends to capture the attention of audiences from all walks of life. However, not all of them are memorable. A rare few can transcend stereotype and expectation and deliver a well-rounded experience that is unforgettable. For me, The Family Fang is one of them. Based on the book of the same name by Kevin Wilson, this film takes every facet of the dysfunctional family dynamic and puts it on display with gravitas and wit.
An exceptional cast blended with a well written and perfectly paced story help earn director and star Jason Bateman some major filmmaking credit. I'd like to share some spoiler free insight into this surprisingly beautiful piece of artistry and highlight some key factors that make it a must see film for anyone that can relate to a little family dysfunction or those that wish to watch a film that will make them look beyond the surface to discover something more.
"Parents Damage Their Kids": A Heavy Look Into Questionable Parenting
As The Family Fang opens, we meet Annie, a struggling actress desperate to escape the shameful shadow of her childhood, and her brother Baxter, an author with a serious case of writer's block. When an unexpected (and hilarious) accident on the job puts Baxter in the hospital and the staff call his parents, he frantically calls on his sister for help: he doesn't want to face their parents alone. Annie, knowing exactly why, travels to their hometown for an unwelcome, yet necessary reunion.
We learn that the Fang family has been famous for years. Caleb and Camille Fang began their careers as performance artists in college and took their work to unbelievable highs after they had children. Their performances were more about getting genuine reactions from unsuspecting bystanders than they were anything else. From staged robberies and emergencies to social commentary pieces and one seriously messed up school play, there was seemingly no limit to the Fang's thirst for bystander shock. Going so far as to refer to them as Child A and Child B, Caleb Fang's obsession with his art destroyed his relationship with his children. Upon reuniting, he tries to force them into another performance. Annie and Baxter refuse, which leads to a rather harsh argument that really hits home for those that have a rocky relationship with their parents.
Days later, the police reach out to inform Annie and Baxter that their parents are missing. Their abandoned car shows signs of struggle and evidence linking the event to a string of murders in the area. Due to the nature of their work, Annie refuses to believe they are missing at all. She's certain this is all one giant performance. With her brother's help, they begin digging through the family home to look for clues, hoping they will figure out where they really are. This journey becomes extremely emotional and complex. Seeing their efforts unfold throughout the rest of the film was a roller coaster of feeling and depth that can't be ignored.
We are given a look into the turbulent lives of the Fangs through flashbacks and present day situations that help us grow to understand exactly why Annie and Baxter became the people they are. Family life has such an impact on how people function as adults. Annie and Baxter are constantly judged for their behavior and general way of life, but by looking beyond the surface and discovering their pasts, we can begin to realize they are searching for something, anything at all, that will help them overcome and transcend their past to become the artists that they were never given a chance to be as children. This is the struggle of many adults all around the world. So many people can relate to the Fangs in at least one way. I think that's the biggest takeaway from this film: whether your parents were as intense as the Fangs or not, everyone is looking to overcome some deep rooted obstacle that stems from childhood. It is the human condition.
It's Never All Bad: Lightening The Mood With Humor
This film would be extremely hard to handle without humor. The random moments of outlandish comedy makes the heavier tones of this story so much easier to digest. I believe the Dramedy is one of the best formats in filmmaking: it allows you to tell stories that have immense amounts of depth and emotion without losing your audience because the tone is just too heavy. The Family Fang is a perfect example of this. I found myself laughing to the point of tears just as much as I was trying to hold back genuine tears of emotion. The balance of light and dark was spot on.
Christopher Walken's performance as Caleb Fang was exceptional. As an actor, he's always found a way to win an audience over even if his character may not be as likable: this is no exception. As uncomfortable and enraged as I felt toward Caleb Fang throughout this movie, I couldn't help laughing at and downright loving his lighter scenes and brighter moments.
Even one of the most shocking Fang performance scenes had such outrageously funny elements that I found myself both disgusted and amused in the same moment. When a film can create that kind of rare cognitive dissonance in its audience, it has achieved something. Many of my favorite films to this day do exactly that: make me feel two things at once, forcing me to think harder about the situation and dive deeper into its meaning. Films that spark thought and discussion are right up my alley and The Family Fang is most definitely one of them.
A Balanced Equation: Casting, Pacing and Style
A good script can only go so far. There are so many elements that can make or break a film. The Family Fang got so much of it right. From casting and pacing to editing and production design, this movie was well made.
Jason Bateman shines as a director and an actor. I was extremely impressed with his creative choices throughout the film. Nicole Kidman embodied Annie Fang so well that I began to wonder if she drew inspiration from experience rather than her acting chops. Always a crowd pleaser, Christopher Walken was made for his role, in my opinion, just as I feel Maryann Plunkett did an outstanding job as the mother Fang. I see a great cast as one in which the entire movie would suffer if even one role was recast and I believe that is the case with The Family Fang. Each role was perfectly cast and the chemistry between the actors made for a true gem.
As far as pacing goes, I feel this is another success. A story like this would fail to shine if certain pieces of it were either too drawn out or passed too quickly. The flashbacks weren't excessive and truly did pace the story in a unique and pleasing way, there wasn't too much buildup at the beginning, the climax of the film hit at exactly the right moment, and the conclusion wasn't rushed and left me in a state of pleasing yet heavy self-reflection.
A smaller, yet crucial facet of this film that really impressed me was its style. The sets and filming locations matched the tone of the film while the wardrobe and prop choices blended perfectly with the direction of the underlying themes. These seemingly nuanced choices really do matter, to me at least. Nothing seemed out of place, the flashbacks seemed authentic and vintage, and everything came together in a way that allowed me to fall into the movie and experience it rather than just observe it.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Family Fang and have already recommended it to friends and family as a must-see. See it for the comedy, see it for the drama, leave the experience glad you did!
The Family Fang received rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival and was picked up for theatrical release by Starz Digital. It is currently in theaters. Check out the trailer for the movie above and follow my page for more content on a wide array of films and TV series! Seen the film? Feel free to tell me how you felt about it in the comments!