An uptight person mellowed by interaction with a child is a virtual cliché, but “Family,” the on-the-nose title of first-timer Laura Steinel’s take on the chestnut, tries to make up for the familiarity of the plot by adopting a quirkily deadpan style; it’s not enough.
Taylor Schilling stars as Kate, whose ultra-ambitious work-centered life makes her a pariah among her office colleagues; even the closest person she has to a friend there (Blair Beeken) is a frequent target of her withering attacks. As for her family, she simply ignores them, finding barely the time to touch base occasionally and not caring much if she does.
When her brother Joe (Eric Edelstein) calls, she’s more irritated than anything else, and when he asks if she can take care of his eleven-year old daughter Maddie (Bryn Vale) for the night, her first reaction is to say no. But she’s guilted into agreeing when he tells her that his wife (Alison Tolman) needs to visit her dying mother in the hospice, and she’s the only person they can turn t as a sitter.
Of course the task is extended to a week, and so Kate’s forced to juggle work, where a smiling newcomer (Jessie Ennis) is using Kate’s own techniques to undercut her position with their boss (Matt Walsh), with her responsibilities as a surrogate mother, which she of course handles badly
The situation is complicated by the fact that Maddie is no ordinary kid. A total misfit bullied at school, she has, unbeknownst to her parents, jettisoned ballet lessons to take karate at a dojo next door run by good-natured Pete (Brian Tyree Henry). Now she finds a new friend in an amiably goofy clerk at a nearby convenience store (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido) who identifies as a Juggalo called Baby Joker, one of the followers of the Insane Clown Posse who paint their faces to attend the band’s raucous concerts, and she joins the group herself; the big finale of the picture will find Kate and her parents trying to find her at a Juggalo festival.
One other thread is folded into this ostentatiously wacky tale. Kate watches Maddie by moving into her parents’ house, and has a series of run-ins with an officious neighbor (Kate McKinnon), who presents herself as the local rule-maker.
Steinel’s take on this material is to emphasize the eccentricity of the characters, making for an overall feeling of stiffness as points are hammered home. The italicizing is most evident in Schilling’s performance, which at times makes Kate seem like an automaton rather than a human being, but it affects the other cast members too, though Henry and Guido manage to seem a little looser than the others. Vale comes across as merely stolid until she exhibits some volatility toward the close, when she gets angry over the sort of outfit she wants to wear to a school dance (Kate eventually give in to her peculiar choice) and then has an emotional change of heart when she realizes the mistake she’s made. McKinnon gets some hard-earned laughs as an overly intense suburban mom, but her entire story thread comes across as extraneous.
The tech contributions on “Family” are adequate; the production design (by Jennifer Klide) is decent, as is the cinematography (by Michael Simmonds), and Jeremy Turner has edited the picture down to a trim eighty-five minutes. Even at that modest length, however, it feels overextended.
That’s the fault of the material, which in the end is very old-fashioned stuff, hardly made fresh by Steinel’s effort to give it an odd tone. The result is merely a predictable bit of fluff played in an affected style that’s more irritating than enticing.