Documentarian Arthur Dong takes a sober approach to the subject of gay children and their rigidly religious parents in “Family Fundamentals,” carefully avoiding the slightest hint of sensationalism or even cinematic slickness. The result is informative, intriguing, observant, often touching and, at a mere 75 minutes, hardly overlong. While it strives to appear balanced, however, there’s little doubt where Dong’s sympathies lie. The parents and their associates are given free rein to express their views (or not, as they wish), and come off seeming, for all their protestations, strident and judgmental. The children, on the other hand, are generally more articulate, and their feelings of exclusion far more poignant.
Still, Dong can hardly be accused of making a simple propaganda picture, and he’s chosen his subjects intelligently. There’s Kathleen Bremner, a California church leader estranged from her lesbian daughter Susan Jester and Susan’s gay son David, and Brett Mathews, the son of a Mormon bishop traveling to visit his Utah home after a long separation from his family. The interviews with the parties (Brett’s relatives declined to participate) don’t necessarily offer any surprises, but many moments–particularly the sometimes halting, deeply disappointed musings of Brett and David–cut uncomfortably to the bone. Finally, Dong includes Brian Bennett, long-time legislative aide to far-right California Representative Bob Dornan; though Dornan had become virtually a surrogate father to Bennett, the two men broke when the latter came out. This story thread obviously takes the film more into the public realm, inevitably raising the question whether it’s possible to be both a gay man and a Republican activist, though it’s weakened once more by Dornan’s refusal to be interviewed (Dong does use radio broadcasts and other means to include his perspective to some degree, however).
Of course “Family Fundamentals” can’t provide any solution to the social problem it depicts. But it gives a human face to what’s often discussed in purely abstract terms, and does so in a quietly effective, sometimes quite powerful way.