It needed to trim off some of the parts that did not work in order for it to be effective.
Directed by Laura Thies, Surviving Family is an indie film about a dysfunctional family and the struggles of facing the truths behind its troubled past. Accompanying the film is the appropriate tagline, “You can’t escape the family tree.” However, the film bites off more than it can chew. Instead of relying more on what it did right, the family itself, it adds unnecessary elements along the way.
The beginning opens with what looks to be a typical birthday celebration as adolescent Terry Malone blows out her birthday candles on her cake. But things quickly shift from ordinary to horrifying. Her mother goes to find a knife to cut the cake but takes a considerable amount of time to do so. Meanwhile, at the table her younger brother reaches for his mother’s glass of alcohol. Not stopping him is his liquored up father who proceeds to make him drink it. When Terry goes to see what is taking her mother so long, she screams so loud that she can be heard from the other room.
The film then advances ahead as we see Terry (Sarah Wilson) as an adult with her fiancé Alex D’Amico (Billy Magnussen) coming back to New Jersey to break the news to her family about their marriage plans. They decide to surprise her sister for dinner and tell her the news. But little does she know the biggest surprise awaits her when she discovers she has a half-sister that no one told her about. It scene plays out just as awkward to the viewer as it would be in person because the acting felt a little off.
More flashbacks reveal how her mother killed herself as you start to get a feeling of how the family got so dysfunctional. Just as the beginning foreshadowed, Terry’s younger brother became an alcoholic and had several run-ins with the law. Her brother’s condition was the tipping point for her to move to Los Angeles where she ended up meeting Alex.
For the most part, the film works but only when her half-sister is not in the scene. When she is, the acting and dialog becomes way over-dramatic and the scene is ruined. There are enough flawed characters in the family to make the film interesting without having to add the half-sister bit in there.
The film does not leave any family member detail unexplained, almost has if it does not trust the viewer to do any amount of reading between the lines. Some people prefer this though, so they will enjoy the fact everything being spelled out to them. I felt like some of it was not needed though.
Surviving Family feels like a made for TV movie or a slightly more grown up daytime soap opera. Yet, at no point did I get an urge to abandon the film because it is one of those where you want to see how it turns out. I kept waiting for some big twist or event to happen but it plays out fairly straightforward.
Because the film was heavily based the screenwriter Mara Lesemann’s life, the film is pretty much an autobiography about her life. Which perhaps explains why it took a more straightforward approach and introduces more characters than it really needed (the half-sister and an old high school boyfriend) as they were likely inspired by her real-life events.
Ultimately, Surviving Family had more flaws than the flawed characters did in the film. It almost always felt a little off kilter whether it was the acting in a certain scene, lack of story arc or the unneeded characters that were brought in. The main focus of the film, the dysfunctional family, was done really well. It just needed to trim off some of the parts that did not work in order for it to be effective.