There have been plenty of big studio movies about a long-absent child returning home to a dysfunctional family for the holidays, and virtually all of them have been terrible, so it’s only fair that independent moviemakers should have a go at it. Unfortunately, though admirably modest and understated, “Familiar Strangers” isn’t appreciably better than a picture like “The Family Stone.” As it turns out, it has a lot to be modest about.
The picture actually has a fairly strong cast. Shawn Hatosy plays Brian Worthington, the prodigal son—a writer of technical books—who comes back to his Virginia hometown for Thanksgiving after being away for four years. His mother Dottie (Ann Dowd) welcomes him warmly, but his father Frank (Tom Bower), who’d wanted him to go into the family hardware business, is standoffish and uncommunicative, showing more concern for his terminally-sick dog.
Then there are Brian’s siblings. Erin (Cameron Richardson), who drives a Lays Potato Chip truck, is recently divorced and easily bruised, with a precocious young daughter, Maddy (Georgia Mae Lively). And younger bro Kenny (DJ Qualls) is a wiseacre slacker who still hasn’t found how he wants to spend his life.
Brian hits it off with a local grocery clerk (Nikki Reed, wasted), but their brief encounters are overshadowed by his attempts to reconnect with his family, especially Frank. There are a few affecting moments, but most of the episodes are either precious or overly broad. A plot thread about Brian being pressured to put his dad’s dog to sleep ends as a damp squib, and a Thanksgiving Day dinner debacle isn’t much better. The ultra-quirky material involving Maddy totally fails, particularly since the untrained Lively is stiff and amateurish. And a county fair sequence involving a basketball game in which the players ride on donkeys comes off both ultra-cute and poorly shot and edited. By contrast, the scenes between Hatosy and Bower are generally solid, and the actors work well off one another, and though Qualls’s smart-alecky turn can be irritating, he and Hatosy have a natural rapport, too.
On the technical side this is clearly a low-budget effort, but director Zackary Adler and cinematographer Hernan Michael Otano manage reasonably well on their meager resources. As so often is the case in such efforts, the score (by Dawn Landes and Steve Sallett) tries too hard, going for a down-homesy quality that ends up feeling affected.
“Familiar Strangers” is a harmless movie about nice people, but the adjective in the title proves all too accurate. It’s really out of place on the big screen; a nice cable slot or a spot on a video store shelf would be more appropriate.