Dysfunctional families are to indie dramas what spectacular explosions are to blockbuster action thrillers – the bread and butter of their narrative, an indispensable part of their storytelling DNA.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, since these dramas, with their focus on slowly-unspooled stories and richly-wrought characters who are given plenty of time to talk and work through their issues are ideally suited to exploring the machinations of families who long ago left behind any semblance of the Hallmark ideal, assuming they ever had it at all.
But like any element that crops up and again in a particular genre, how it is used becomes almost as important, if not more so, than the fact that it is there at all, given it is all too easy to trot out the same stock standard characters and tropes, thrown them into all manner of confronting been-there-done-that situations and let loose the dogs of dysfunctional conflict.
That’s why This is Where I Leave You, directed by Shawn Levy (The Spectacular Now) and based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jonathan Tropper (who also provides the tautly paced screenplay) is such an enjoyably unexpected achievement.
Here is a family, headed by just-widowed feisty matriarch Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda), that is rife with the sort of dysfunction that has filled a thousand indie films before it – unhappy, squabbling siblings, thwarted life ambitions, adultery and its aftermath, unfulfilling relationships, regret and loss, and the confounding need for new beginnings in a landscape where neither the road less travelled or the road most travelled is an appealing prospect.
And yet somehow outspoken, over sharing therapist Hillary and her brood – eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll) who has never left the family’s hometown and runs their sporting good store, Judd (Jason Bateman) whose marriage ended along with his job when he found his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) having sex with his boss Wade (Dax Shepard), Phillip (Adam Driver), youngest son and self-admitted family screw-up, and daughter Wendy (Tina Fey), doting mother and exasperated wife – manage to transcend the many cliches that abound in a story that follows the week following the untimely death of their husband and father.
Asked to sit shiva, a Jewish practice which requires immediate family members to gather in one home for seven days while receiving visitors offering condolence, as a dying wish of father Altman, the family is thrown together in ways that prove confronting to a group of people that had long since ceased saying anything meaningful with each other, a coping tactic brought on by Hillary’s propensity to share all their secrets in her wildly popular therapy books.
Forced to sit side by side for most of the day on low slung chairs that negate the concept of personal space or privacy, a host of skeletons are released from closets, some on purpose, most accidentally and unwillingly, including Judd’s broken marriage, Paul’s inability to have a baby with wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who is also Judd’s ex-girlfriend, Phillip’s dead end career prospects and Wendy’s pining regret for her mildly brain-damaged old boyfriend Horry (Timothy Olyphant) who lives across from the family with his mother, Hillary’s close friend Linda (Debra Monk).
What saves this litany of woes from becoming one tiresome parade of annoying disappointed-by-life cliches is that fact that underlying all the fractiousness are strong bonds of affection and love, long left idle and untested by distance, both emotional and physical, but very much still in place.
The Altmans then are not the flag bearers for cartoonish dysfunctionality, with real close relationships underpinning all the testy moments, the snarky quips, of which there are amusingly plenty, and physical jousting.
Hillary, for all her lack of boundaries in respecting the privacy of her children – an irony given her book Cradle and All, is all about raising happy, healthy successful kids – genuinely and deeply loves her children and shares many profoundly touching moments with them throughout the film.
The siblings too, for all their frustrations with each other, are never less than fully supportive of each other - Judd and Wendy are particularly close, spending many scenes on the roof of the house with each other - able to talk things through rather than have their issues divide them for all time.
These characters are actually likeable people, with real problems recognisable to anyone with a reasonably functional life and family, which makes them inherently relatable and enjoyable to be around.
It helps that Levy, apart from crafting an ending that accurately reflects the loose thread, not-everything-gets-resolved nature of things, has assembled such a talented, accomplished ensemble to bring the Altman family to less-than-perfect life.
Fonda is remarkable as Hillary, ballsy and unedited in her comments and her acutely sensitive when the situation calls for it; in other words a real person grappling with her own unmet needs and expectations for life.
Bateman as Judd is pitch perfect – world weary and exhausted by the twists and turns in his well-planned life but never tiresomely so, his budding relationship with high school crush Penny (Rose Byrne) realistic and yet rom-com sweet, his relationships with his siblings hilariously true to life, informed by his goofiness as much as his witty observations.
Fey, Stoll and Driver are also excellent in their respective roles, as is Connie Britton as Phillip’s much older therapist girlfriend whose outsider status affords her a perspective that the Altmans and those close to them don’t always possess (though they are, by and large, a fairly self-aware bunch … eventually).
This is Where I Leave You works so well, and leaves such a favourable impression because it recognises that while dysfunction does exists in even the best of families, given they are populated by fallible people with good intentions but imperfect execution, it doesn’t mean it has to define the family in its entirety.
The Altmans, test each other, annoy the hell out of each other, and constantly butt heads but they are, for the most part, in love with each other in a way that only parents and siblings who have genuine connections with each other can be.
Their relationships may not always find fully formed, pleasing expression but they are very much there and intact which means they can withstand the 21st century arrows and slings of outrageous domestic misfortune and emerge on the other side to face another day.
All of which makes This is Where I Leave You, a pleasingly mature treatise on the nature of family, one that has all the hallmarks of a dysfunctional indie family drama but isn’t captive to them, that is able to place them in the sort of context that that makes immediate sense to anyone watching while articulating them with insightful humour and likeability, reminding us in the process that for all their faults, we often need our families far more more than we might think we do.
Check out the trailer and series of interviews and interviews for the film …