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The Independent Critic

Sarah Wilson, Bill Magnussen, Bill Sage, Tara Westwood, Johnny Hopkins, Phyllis Somerville
Laura Thies
Mara Lesemann
87 Mins.

 "Surviving Family" Review 
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The most disturbing thing about Surviving Family may very well be that it's not disturbing.

Instead, Surviving Family is slice-of-life film existing within the lives of a family that likely has their family photo located squarely within the definition of dysfunctional family.

Terry (Sarah Wilson) is a 24-year-old woman who has returned to her New Jersey home with fiance' Alex (Billy Magnussen) in tow. Terry hasn't returned home easily, the result of a traumatic childhood that included her mother's suicide smack dab in the middle of her own 13th birthday party. Terry has always blamed her father's (Bill Sage) drinking and philandering ways, so she's not particularly pleased when she's met at the family abode by both her sister Jean (Tara Westwood) and Helen (Sophia Parra), a half-sister Terry never knew she had from a relationship her father probably never should have had.

Now then, I can almost feel your heavy sigh right now.

"Not another dysfunctional family drama," you're probably saying to yourself?

While the sentiment is logical and legitimate, Surviving Family transcends any potential challenges largely on the strength of Mara Lesemann's insightful and even-keeled script that treats these characters as fully human rather pawns in a hyperactive drama. Few family dramas of this nature have the guts to fully explore the many layers of family dysfunction, preferring to "sell the drama" of trauma and hurt and anger. Lesemann's script, on the other hand, weaves its magic by exploring the everyday intimacies, the spoken and unspoken truths, the desire for healing and the awkward dance of reconciliation.

There are times when Surviving Family screams out "Lifetime Movie of the Week," an observation that may sound like an insult but it is neither insult nor particularly a compliment. It's more an observation that Surviving Family is the kind of film where you find yourself sitting in front of the television mesmerized by the story that's unfolding. Surviving Family is the kind of film that would be best served on the film fest circuit or on a smaller screen where its intimacy can be embraced rather than considered a challenge.

The film's ensemble cast is uniformly strong with each performer seemingly in touch with how their character is connected to the story and the other characters. Sarah Wilson's Terry starts off as this beautiful yet wilted flower guarding herself from the elements of life, yet over the course of the film one watches her blossom into a young woman reaching out towards an understanding of herself and others. Tara Westwood is remarkably strong as older sister Jean, whose way of coping has been remarkably different and informed by a different understanding. Phyllis Somerville is the film's highlight as Aunt Mary, whose knowledge of the truth about her sister's lifelong struggle with depression becomes the key to Terry's healing and the starting of a healing journey.

Director Laura Thies constructs Surviving Family in a straightforward manner, yet its her trust of the material and refusal to sell the story's inherent drama that really helps to make the film work.

If you get a chance, check out Surviving Family in whatever venue you can. It's a film that may not blow you away as you're watching it, but hours and even days after you've experienced it you'll find yourself reflecting on these characters, the words they spoke and the story that unfolded.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic