SXSW 2024: FAMILY Explores The Horror And Pain of Illness

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out what angle to attack a review from, especially in regards to festival coverage. Occasionally that is due to the fact that what makes a film distinctive is due to a final act twist or surprise, and you want to delicately approach avoiding spoilers for a film you are among a handful of people to see. Other times it is due to having so much to say that you aren’t sure how to condense it. And other times there is such joy and mystery in the journey of watching the film itself that you don’t want to linger too much as to strip away that experience from a future potential viewer.

Family, the directorial debut from Benjamin Finkel that premiered last night as SXSW, firmly falls into that last category. From its opening scene to its final frame, you are pulled through a distinctive, confident vision that establishes itself throughout. But even as you think you have your feet beneath you, it pulls the rug out, diving into deeper dreaminess that equally reminds of the most unsettling elements of David Lynch and Ari Aster. What can on the surface feel like a creeping monster film reveals itself to be a powerful meditation on the forces of grief and anxiety and their ability to completely dismember you. If you are already convinced to seek it out, I need not say more. But in case you’re not sold, read on.

Family tells the story of Johanna (Cameron Dawson Gray in their feature film debut), a young girl whose father is very sick. As her family moves into a new home, she wanders the strange creaking hallways, making videos to document it all and hyperfixating on a strangely shaped birdhouse that seems to have pinned all of her family’s future hopes onto. But soon her hope metamorphosizes into dread as both her parents begin acting strangely, and a malevolent force calls to her from the birdhouse, warning her that Johanna is not safe, least of all from her own parents.

The first act of Family is likely its quietest, but also in many ways it also is its more disorienting. There is something about the half-heard conversations and distinctive perspective of youth that Finkel utilizes that feels keenly observed. The film draws from his own experiences with his father’s sickness as a youth, thus the authenticity of illness hanging as this unspeakable force directly under the skin sets a mood that is only enhanced once supernatural, unexplainable occurrences begin. This is the great strength of Family, how it can flow in and out of the unknown and the all too familiar with ease, keeping you on the toes of what precisely is being revealed at any given time.

Family also has a lot of earmarks that distinguish it as a premiere film from an indie filmmaker: a small cast, mostly shot on one location, and uses its special effects shots sparingly. But Finkel uses these limitations to his advantage, leaning on his actors to help him in setting the tone. Dawson Gray lives in the tension of the waking nightmare, while both Ruth Wilson and Ben Chaplin dance along the edge of trying to be present parents to Johanna, while also being consumed by their own world’s crumbling around them. Wilson and Chaplin are routinely tasked and nail turning a scene on a dime, shifting from comforting to unnerving and back.

 But perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is how keenly it observes all aspects of the family in crisis, both the way that a child perceives family illness and the unsettling impact that can have on their sense of the universe, but also the pressure it places on the parents to remain calm in the face of devastation. Complex emotional turmoil abounds, and underlines each whispered demonic threat. Perhaps Family’s most horrifying element is how helplessly fragile our more necessary structures prove themselves to be in the face of the unknown, and how quickly they can unravel. It is a pain and horror that Finkel clearly knows all too well, and captures in this hugely promising debut.

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