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Review: Family Weekend (2013)

Family Weekend

Rating

Director
Benjamin Epps
Screenplay
Matt K. Turner
Length
106 min.
Starring
Olesya Rulin, Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Modine, Joey King, Eddie Hassell, Robbie Tucker, Shirley Jones, Chloe Bridges, Adam Saunders, Chase Maser
MPAA Rating
R for some sexual content and brief drug use

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Review
If your family was so self-absorbed that they forgot to recognize a significant achievement in your life, what would you do to try and bring them back together? In Family Weekend, one enterprising young rope-jumping wunderkind concocts a plan to do just that, but neglects to account for any number of problems that tumble out of her control.

Emily Smith-Dungy (Olesya Rulin) is a serious, competitive high schooler adhering to a strict regimen that will help her thrive as one of the top jump roping champions the state has ever seen. Her large, eclectic family has been relatively unsupportive of her and each other for years, but their failure to show at her sectional match sends her over the edge. The state competition is coming up and damn it all if she isn't going to fix her family before then.

Her amazing plan is to kidnap her parents, hold them hostage and re-educate them in the ways of being a parent, the role she feels like she has taken on far too long. Her family consists of an artist father (Matthew Modine) who seems to have hit a bout of artist's block; a businesswoman mother (Kristen Chenoweth) whose cellphone looks to be permanently attached; an older brother (Eddie Hassell), a gay hipster internet artist; a younger sister (Joey King) who wants to be an actress and chooses to emulate characters from adult-oriented films like Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs and A Clockwork Orange; a younger brother (Robbie Tucker), an autistic child with a fascination for wildlife critters and a keen recollection that's used to impart facts of parental failures at times of need; and her father's mother (Shirley Jones), whose new age ideas are at constant odds with her daughter-in-law's modernist approaches.

There are outsiders in the mix, some more important than others. Kat (Chloe Bridges) is a self-assured upper classman who finds the anal-retentive Emily a fascinating science project. After discovering what Emily has done with her family, she invades the event in order to secretly record and disseminate the craziness to the public. Her position enables her to watch Emily's dramatic unravelling, which ultimately leads her to empathize with the wayward teen. Bridges is a satisfying fixture reminsicent in appearance and carriage to Megan Fox, but with more talent.

One of Emily's classmates, Chris (Chase Mayer), has a crush on the headstrong rope jumper and interjects himself periodically in the events, hoping to win Emily's approval, not understanding that she's distracted by other more pressing matters. Mayer's presence provides only a limited goose of the film's plot and otherwise seems unnecessarily vague. His performance is gentle and appealing, but ill-fitting to the film. There's a third outside force involved, but his participation in the film is likewise unimportant. Rick (Adam Saunders) is one of Emily's mother's employees and is revealed to be more than that. Being stuck into the adventure is one of the more questionable elements of the film if he's provides a few random moments of humor.

Chenoweth was funnier on Pushing Daisies, but this may be one of her better recent performances. One part pitbull, one part concerned parent, Chenoweth does what the occasionaly confused script expects of her if little else. Likewise, Modine keeps his hippy father act going on repeat, never branching out from caricture. And that's what the film builds most of its personalities on: caricature. However, that's one of the benefits of Matt K. Turner's screenplay. Especially noticeable with the younger family members, Turner's script builds on these caricatures and moves them beyond the superficiality inherent in those stereotypes. These are children who may be outwardly outlandish, but each possesses a depth that isn't revealed until later in the film. They are, after all children, and their unusual behavior may be more attributable to parental attention-seeking than general, plot-conventional weirdness. Tucker is the best of the supporting bunch while Hassell and King are a bit more limited in their performances.

Choosing Rulin as the star was a fantastic decision. Building a regimented character whose seriousness is an attempt to mask the pain she feels at having to be the parent of the house, Rulin endears herself to the audience, making her sometimes questionable acts sympathetic. Her stoic exterior crumbles away as an injured youth emerges. This transformation occurs as the film delves into psychological trauma that's built up around her all these years. Rulin grows into the performance in each scene ultimately merging expectation and result.

Director Benjamin Epps chose an interesting film to mark his debut on the big screen. Watching the trailer, the first impression anyone may get is that this is a conventional story of a young girl going to extremes to save her family. The resultant film is more measured and diverse than expected, making for a pleasant adventure exploring adolescent frustrations. Epps' style is reminiscent of Wes Anderson who approached mainstream topics with outlandish characters. Whereas Anderson focuses on a hyper-stylized environment for his characters, Epps opts for a realistic world where his oddball characters can flourish.

Family Weekend is a movie that can be enjoyed with older children even with the infrequently coarse language. It's R-rating is rather mysterious considering how limited in scope the objected content is. Were it not for one character being homosexual and the father smoking pot, I don't see any reason why the MPAA would have given this such a high rating. It's a frustrating decision and one which shouldn't prevent too many parents from picking up the film and giving it a whirl. It might not be prudent to show this to a five-year-old, but teenagers around the same age as our heroine Emily should be able to handle the material well enough.

What years of experience have given to those who become parents is typically more encompassing than the pop culture-infused lives of teenagers. The movie looks at all teens in much the same way. Contrary to their own beliefs and capabilities, they can be smart and strong, but are still children. As much as they feel they know more than their parents, their adventures in life haven't quite prepared them for the mistakes they will make, which is all a part of growing-up. Likewise, parents have a tendency to get absorbed in the things that help their families survive and sometimes forget that they have two jobs as parents: providers and guides. Family Weekend brings into focus the frailities of family dynamics and how that fragile bond needs support from all corners to survive and thrive.
Oscar Prospects
Unlikelies: Everything
Review Written
March 19, 2013

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