There is a sense of immediacy in writer/director Michael Glover Smith's latest film Relative, a NewCity Chicago Film Project produced film that unfolds with such naturalness that you can't help but feel like you're dwelling amidst the Frank family as they gather together to celebrate the college graduation of Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts), the youngest of the Frank children who is all set to leave the nest for a gig as a digital cartographer at Google Maps leaving only his brother, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher), at home, an Iraq war veteran who spends most of his days in his attic bedroom playing video games and obsessing on his ex-wife Sarah (Heather Chrisler).
The immediacy comes not from a sense of urgency but from a sense that Relative is unfolding in the right now. It's a story that is likely unfolding in different variations in homes across the country, though it must be said that this Chicago-shot film is most definitely a Chicago film set for the most part in a quite lovely home on Newgard Avenue in Rogers Park.
As is nearly always true of these types of gatherings, this gathering becomes much more than simply about Benji's graduation because, if we're being honest, every major family gathering carries with it both casual familiarity and subtle yet impactful revelations. I may have not told a single other soul, but when a family gathering comes around I will most certainly announce something new - a new illness, a job loss, a relationship change, a move, or some other major life happening. I do this not because I particularly care about my family's approval, I don't, but because this is one of those dynamics that being in a family creates and the major family gathering becomes that place where you test the waters with major life changes before allowing it to ripple out into the world around you.
The Frank family includes parents Karen (Wendy Robie) and David (Francis Guinan), semi-retired progressive activists who have nearly finished raising their perfectly imperfect children, also including Evonne (Clare Cooney) and Norma (Emily Lape) alongside the aforementioned young men, and are wrestling with what this means for their post-family lives if they can manage to find a place where Rod belongs so that they can finally return to living their own adult lives.
There's not a lot that unfolds in Relative, a film that isn't so much about a journey or a destination but rather about a state of what it means to "be" in a family and to be relative with one another.
I was struck over and over again by the casual familiarity of the Frank family. In fact, at one point it brought me to tears. Few filmmakers, and for that matter few ensembles, capture the quiet intimacy of family as is captured here in Relative. I'm talking about the fact that the Frank family, almost without exception, actually looks at each other with they speak because eye contact has become a comfortable and familiar and respectful thing. I'm talking about the fact that the Frank family expresses care for one another, in both casual and intimate ways, through subtle forms of touch that practically washed over me as I was watching the characters relate. Even when they were in disagreement, which is never performed to the point of histrionics as we're so often used to in this type of family drama, there's a connection that also says "We are family." This casual familiarity struck me again and again throughout Relative's 97-minute running time. This may be partly because this ensemble of mostly Chicago actors is filled to the brim with those who also have stage experience, a performance setting that nearly always requires greater immediacy, presence, and relational acting skills.
Or, quite honestly, it may just be how this story is meant to unfold.
Regardless, it's sublime.
The family that we get to know in Relative feels exquisitely real. It may not be my family or yours, but there are shards of the universal experience that reflect our own experiences within the families we grew up in or the families that we have chosen over the years. While Karen and David wrestle with the jobs they have done as parents and with their own readiness to live into something different, both of their daughters are experiencing both the normalcies of domestic life and emotional and very tangible road bumps that we all experience on our way to becoming the adults we are meant to be. There is conflict between Benji and Rod, a not so subtle jealousy as Rod watches Benji's life unfold smoothly and without drama while he struggles with the basics of independence in his now post-Iraq world.
Relative quietly asserts, I'd dare say, that the idea of a dysfunctional family is overstated. Instead, we spend our lives learning how to give and receive being family over and over and over again whether that means we find our homes in the families we grew up in or the families that we've come to choose. Being family isn't some stagnant thing that never changes, but it's a constantly fluid organism that grows with us.
Family isn't good or bad. Family is.
Michael Glover Smith, director of Mercury in Retrograde and Rendezvous in Chicago, has crafted a film that radiates the everyday normalcy of what it means to be family. These are people I can imagine myself sitting around a table talking to while simultaneously feeling close to and ready to get away from them. Cameron Scott Roberts, who picked up the Best Performance prize at the Gasparilla International Film Festival, feels vibrantly real as a young man ready to embark on his next journey. Roberts avoids caricatures quite beautifully, especially as a young man who skips the neighborhood gathering to hang out with a friend at Chicago's real-life Hopleaf Tavern and then leaves the family gathering being held in his honor because he wants a little more time with Hekla (Elizabeth Stam), a lovely young woman and aspiring actress he meets and with whom he shares an undeniable spark. Relative picks up an undeniable spark when Hekla agrees to be his date for a return to the family gathering and all the weirdness to ensue.
Suffice it to say, what should be weird is instead wonderful and Elizabeth Stam is one of the film's truly delightful gems.
The odds are strong that you will resonate least with Keith D. Gallagher's Rod, though that's to be expected given the character's own lack of being settled. He reminded me greatly of my own younger brother, a fiercely unsettled but quietly wonderful human being who never grew into himself and passed away just this past year while living not in the family home but in a home owned by my parents. Gallagher has the difficult task of carrying much of the film's heaviest drama and he does so quite powerfully yet he still maintains the film's unique, comfortable, and familiar rhythm. Rod isn't good or bad. Rod is.
Clare Cooney's Evonne arrives to the gathering alongside her partner Lucia (Melissa DuPrey) and their daughter, Emma (Arielle Gonzalez). They themselves are living what it means to be family, though an underlying tension is undeniable. Cooney masterfully portrays the painted on smiles and fragile emotions of a young woman whose life is shifting.
Finally, there is Emily Lape as Norma, who arrives at the gathering without her family amidst her own uncertainties that are never played for false drama but instead simply lived into. As Lape portrays her, it is impossible to not love her.
It would be nearly impossible to single out a single soul in this mighty fine ensemble. Relative picked up the Best Ensemble prize at Festival of Cinema NYC and my only surprise is that it hasn't picked up several more. Across the spectrum of the ensemble, everyone is exceptional from other friends and loved ones who join the gathering to a brief appearance by Lori Felker as the Hopleaf bartender who made me laugh aloud and say "That's a Chicago bartender!"
Every aspect of the film's production is strong. and complements Smith's story to perfection. Music by Cait Rappel is absolute perfection and Olivia Aquilina's lensing is creative and imaginative yet never draws attention away from this immersive and lived-in story. Aquilina manages to show us around this film and immerse us in the lives of each member of the family with tremendous equity.
Stephanie MacDonald's production design has so many little wondrous details that I was practically in awe of her ability to create such a warm, fabulous, and natural environment. The same is true for Armani Barron's costume design - I'm still smiling about the shirt that Karen wears to bed that simply feels so much like the Karen that I got to know in Relative.
Relative is currently playing around the U.S. at film festivals and select screenings including a screening on August 20th here in Indy at Studio Movie Grill. With its wonderful images, immersive story, and sublime music this is a film that would truly benefit from a big screen and I definitely recommend visiting Indy's northwestside to support an indie filmmaker and one of 2022's most rewarding indie cinema efforts.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic