Review of The Perfect Family

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Eileen Cleary has just been nominated for Catholic Woman of the year when her family drop a bombshell. Over the dinner table she discovers that not only is her son leaving his wife and children for the local beautician, but her daughter is 5 months pregnant and about to marry her girlfriend. Desperate to win the award, Eileen is conflicted between shame over her family and still desiring to do the right thing by them. Unable to accept either of their choices her family begins to splinter, with even her husband threatening to leave.
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I've once again braved the LA traffic for another screening. Fortunately, the venue was only a few blocks from the Metro station, so I didn't have to execute any death defying lane changing stunts on the way to the screening room. On the docket was The Perfect Family, a new comedy / drama from director Anne Renton.

The Perfect Family follows fifty-something Irish-Catholic matriarch Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner, The Virgin Suicides) as she doggedly pursues the much coveted Catholic Woman of the Year award at her local parish. While her church activities and community service are beyond reproach, her family will raise all the wrong eyebrows. Her gay daughter (Emily Deschanel, Bones) is soon to marry her partner and is five months pregnant, while her son (Jason Ritter, Joan of Arcadia, W.) is having an affair with the local beautician. Eileen's own marriage is on less firm footing than she knows. Her less than picture perfect family may keep her off the awards stage altogether.

So, the premise seems to ask, can Eileen keep it together and come out on top? Thankfully, the film takes a much more mature and interesting tact than that. This could have been a much worse film. The story could have easily been centered on madcap antics as Eileen desperately hides her “deviant” family from the church right up until the awards ceremony. Also, considering the religious and social components of the story, it could have been very preachy, from one direction or another.

The film does neither of these things. Well, not much, anyway. The story is really about what happens when a person who consistently avoids anything that could challenge their particular world view is confronted by a reality that they aren't prepared for.

The trailer notwithstanding, The Catholic Woman of the Year award is more of a backdrop and a flashpoint than a raison d'etre. Eileen Cleary is a woman living in a carefully constructed world. She is somehow unaware that her daughter is gay, despite her being in a long term, committed relationship where both marriage and children are imminent. She is either unaware or refuses to acknowledge that her son is desperately unhappy in his marriage. It is her preparation for and fretting over this award that forces her head out of the sand.

Kathleen Turner's portrayal of a woman who is, from her own perspective, trying to accept the unacceptable, carries the film. Eileen pines for the pleasant fiction that she's lost. She is in turns bewildered and aghast at her new reality, but this struggle never devolves to farce or angry rhetoric. She makes her missteps, but because of Turner's accomplished performance, they never come off as mean or doctrinaire. They are the actions of a loving but flawed mother and wife who is trying to find her way forward in situations she wasn't prepared for.

The other actors hit their marks as well. Deschanel and Ritter have great chemistry as adult siblings that haven't quite left their childhood dander behind. Deschanel's character's gay relationship is shown for exactly what it is: Loving and healthy. It's always nice to see evidence that we're finally at a point where gay relationships can be portrayed without being sensationalized. It's also always nice to see the Catholic church portrayed as something other than a caricature, particularly in a Hollywood film. Fans of 60's teen idols should enjoy Richard Chamberlain's turn as a priest.

The film isn't without it's faults. Namely, it occasionally seems to remind itself with a bit too much force that it's supposed to be part comedy. Some of the scenes that play for laughs play too hard. There's one sequence in particular involving a high pressure dinner where some of the aforementioned madcap antics surface. It very much feels like a scene from a lesser movie.

Additionally, Jason Ritter's character is a little hard to swallow. We are told several times that his marriage is a disaster, and perhaps we are to assume that a stigma against divorce has made things worse, but we never see the dysfunction of the marriage in question. We see him nuzzling up against his new fling, but we don't see what drove him there to begin with. We're told that he is escaping an unhealthy situation, but from what we're actually shown, he could just as easily be ducking out of his marriage at the first sign of trouble. This muddies the film's message a bit, putting a few points back in the “If It Looks Bad to the Village Elders, it Don't Do It” column.

Antics and village elders aside, everything comes together remarkably well. Those who are overly doctrinaire themselves may not be able to appreciate this film. Meanwhile, those looking for a nasty-gram to send the Catholic church will leave disappointed. On the other hand, those interested in seeing a thoughtful examination of what it means to love and believe in the 21st century would do well to check out The Perfect Family.

The Perfect Family premiers theatrically in Los Angeles and on Video On Demand May 4th.