Family Weekend

Family Weekend

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Emily Smith-Dungy (Olesya Rulin) is a competitive girl. She's worked hard to get where she is. She likes life to be organised. She gets up early and works out, keeps everything ship shape, leaves helpful post-it notes so other members of her family can do the same. But when Emily competes in one of the biggest jump rope competitions of her life (skipping to us Old Worlders) there's nobody there to support her. It's clear that her parents are failing in their role, and as a girl who likes to meet problems head on, she decides on a rather drastic solution.

Teen girl films that step outside the usual pattern of high school angst and crushes are few and far between. Having the young heroine hold her parents hostage while attempting to re-educate them is a bold step indeed. It would be easy to screw this up badly and it is very much to director Epps' credit that he just about manages to keep it on an even keel. There are too many characters - Emily has parents, a grandmother, three siblings, a would-be friend and an admirer - but although this presents challenges around character development, the story that binds them all together is surprisingly coherent.

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Key to this is Rulin's performance. Whenever the pace slackens, she drags things back on track. Whenever things threaten to get too sentimental, she makes us uncomfortable. Nobody has played uptight this well since Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, and like Witherspoon, Rulin shows us just enough vulnerability, just enough humanity to keep us on side. Although this is clearly aimed at a teenage audience it doesn't present Emily as infallible; she has as much to learn as her prisoners. The difference, which Rulin makes clear with a heartbreaking shift of tone, is that she's still a child and shouldn't be expected to direct the household by herself, even if she wants to.

Alongside Rulin, young Robbie Tucker makes an impression as the odd, possibly autistic little brother whose difference is pleasingly taken for granted whilst we watch his sense of humour break through. Hassell is likeable but shallow as the older brother struggling with his sexuality in unexpected ways (though the film's apparent unawareness of bisexuality is a bit peculiar, like its random distrust of veganism). Maser is suitably awkward in the role of Emily's admirer, though we don't see enough of him to figure out what potential appeal he might have for her. She has more chemistry with curiously curious popular girl Kat (Chloe Bridges), but the film isn't going there.

As the parents, Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Modine never quite come across as strongly as they need to, with the latter playing his disillusioned hippy painter as if he's permanently stoned himself. Perhaps he's too distant to really make an impression; perhaps the film is always more inclined to take his side. At any rate, it's the tension between Emily and her mother, hinging on their similarity, that gves the film its energy. Chenoweth's performance is too one-note to bring out the best in this, but she provides an effective foil for the younger actress.

Set in a huge house against a backdrop of snow and open spaces, Family Weekend may deliberately resemble a laboratory experiment but it is where control breaks down that it gets interesting. Despite the occasional descent into clumsy farce, it largely succeeds in creating its own space and providing a pleasingly different teen perspective on life.

Reviewed on: 07 Mar 2013
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Family Weekend packshot
A teenage girl who feels betrayed by her family decides to pursue an intervention, beginning by taking her parents hostage.

Director: Benjamin Epps

Writer: Matt K Turner

Starring: Olesya Rulin, Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Modine, Eddie Hassell, Chloe Bridges, Chase Maser

Year: 2013

Country: US

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