Judicial progress may be slow-going, but many of the films at the 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival suggest that, as a society, we’re inexorably moving towards a marriage-equality world and hurrah to that. So rather than push an agenda, it’s enough that director Anne Renton’s The Perfect Family bears witness to the truism that “the more things change the more things stay the same.”
With refreshing originality, the script by Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley tackles the Catholic Church’s attitude towards homosexuality without feeling the need to wave protest banners and push buttons. I suppose there’s no need to condescend this branch of religious faith when the writing’s already on the wall.
Engrained homophobia, flying in the face of evangelized principles of tolerance and understanding, have long been the ‘incorruptible’ position of a Dark Age institution staunchly refusing to change with the times. Rife with hypocritical, homosexual scandal, the church’s hateful directives on same-sex union promulgates a self-parodying dogma that hardly needs to be teased out and italicized by cinematic satirists.
The members of the East Coat local church to which faithfully dedicated homemaker Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner) belongs, send themselves up so readily, that Renton only has to put the camera in the room and wait for the self-righteous stone-throwing to begin. When one of the congregation makes a snide remark about another member’s obese daughter out of earshot, there’s unmistakable piousness behind the petty gossip, a self-congratulatory comment on the “right” image of a good Catholic women. Commendably, Renton never stoops to taking cheap shots by styling the devout in the gross caricature of Todd Solondz – or to a lesser extent Alexander Payne – there’s a place for that and this story isn’t it.
Nor does Andre Lascaris’ cinematography exaggerate their absurdity with exclamation point framings. When Eileen proclaims, “I’m a Catholic. I don’t have to think”, the statement is made not in brassy indignation but quiet desperation. Still, for the festival crowd I saw it with, this was undoubtedly the film’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment, so you might expect bug-eyed reaction shots from others in the group, to let us know that the filmmakers are laughing right alongside us. Instead, Renton’s much more restrained choice goes straight to the complexities of character: in the close quarters of a simple but troubled close-up, we see the gears turning as Eileen’s lifetime of willfully ignoring the bigger picture starts to catch up with her, an epiphany visually complimented by the frame’s narrow depth of field.
This outburst happens late in the film, but it’s clear long before then that Eileen is an increasingly frayed woman, who struggles everyday to reconcile her devout beliefs with her family’s alternative lifestyle choices. In her every interaction, Kathleen Turner boldly pushes Eileen right up to the edge of losing her poise and composure; a vacillating pressure gauge of tightly wound frustration. Having to deal with the fact that not one of her family turned out the way she wanted is a feeling I’m sure many mothers can identify with regardless of beliefs, and Turner wisely centers this anxiety, ensuring that Eileen is always relatable even at times when her religious intensity might otherwise alienate.
Sure, Turner gets a lot of broad laughs out of such zealousness, but there’s weariness there also. Every time Eileen returns home from another day of do-gooding, there’s a sense that all that time spent at church is as much an escape from her domestic disappointments as it is about service to God.
For while Eileen might just be the perfect Catholic, in the eyes of the Lord, her family are a brood of sinners. Her firefighter husband Frank (Michael McGrady) is a recovering alcoholic, Her lesbian daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is having a baby with her girlfriend Angela (Angelique Cabral), and her son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) is acting on unsatisfied regrets, having recently gotten involved with an older woman and deciding to leave his wife, whom he accidentally got pregnant in high school.
For a woman so outwardly perfect, all this dysfunction makes keeping up day-to-day appearences hard enough, so unsurprisingly, the news of her nomination for Catholic Woman of the Year puts this practice into panicked overdrive. To win the award and receive the prayer of absolution she must fabricate a veneer of wholesomeness for the Archbishop of Dublin, who insists that all family members be present for a home visit, which will inform his final decision.
Applying pressure to get them to behave the way they’re supposed to, latent tensions rise to the surface as Eileen risks sacrificing her family for recognition she wants a lot more than she’s willing to admit. However misguided her priorities, Turner is sympathetic enough to make us see the tragedy of a truly deserving woman come so close, only to have her chances ruined by people and circumstances she can’t control. I only wish Renton had more control of the characters in orbit around Eileen, all thinly sketched in comparison.
I’m a big fan of Jason Ritter, my chief reason for seeing the film in the first place, but Frank Jr. is a waster stereotype with no wounded aspiration behind the goofy grin or guilt about his adultery. Daughter Shannon exhibits cold intolerance equal to that of the parental figure disapproving of her relationship, and husband Frank is so saintly and patient with his very trying wife, it’s hard to believe this guy was ever an alcoholic. Without proper shading this motley collection of talk show problems elicit nothing more than genial laughs and while Renton’s restraint is praiseworthy – relying solely on her protagonist to highlight prejudice without editorializing – her refusal to comment on why the family members react to the matriarch the way they do is problematic.
The temperature of these people feels unnaturally uniform. Even as Elieen gets more and more exasperated, her husband and children all respond at the same volume and their squabbles are never heated. The onus is weighted too heavily towards comedy, so that when Frank Jr. finally does go head-to-head with Mum, his flush of anger feels disproportionate to his role as family jester for much of the film’s runtime.
Perfect or not, you don’t really care about this family anywhere near as much you do Eileen, whose gradual realisation that , sometimes it’s about turning to each other, not just God, sets up an unbelievable eleventh hour acceptance of her situation by the hard-line Catholics. Such an incredulous reversal asks us to put stock in a baloney utopia where the heroine can learn important lessons about the double standards of the faithful without upsetting the moral values of the church. Considering how tastefully the Church’s position is handled up to that point, this is a decidedly bum note. Like the character she plays, Turner is perfect but everything around her, far from it.
A version of this review was first published by Cine Outsider on April 3, 2012