Kate Stone (Taylor Schilling) has spent her whole life chasing boring leads in a bland office job, can’t stand her other people, and has such an estranged relationship with her brother (Eric Edelstein) that she barely realizes he has an adolescent daughter Maddie (Bryn Vale) — until, one day, he begs her to babysit the girl for a few days while her parents are away. So begins the formula of “Family,” writer-director Laura Steinel’s amiable debut, which belongs to that familiar tradition of commercial storytelling that finds an unhappy woman discovering a better path in connecting with others. You’ve probably seen a version of this movie before, just not with all the Juggalos.
That’s right, Juggalos: those hard-partying anarchists in clown makeup who gather each year for raucous debauchery with carnivalesque glee. “Family” begins with Kate stumbling through that affair, looking terrified and out of place, setting the stage for a flashback explaining how she got there. Yet the Gathering of the Juggalos doesn’t animate the movie’s plot so much as it provides a placeholder for its inevitable “climax,” the part where all the dysfunction and frustrations shared by its small ensemble comes to a head. They could be anywhere.
The movie’s saving grace is Kate herself. Played by Schilling as a combustible workaholic who snaps at anyone in her vicinity, she’s an appealing caricature allergic to charm and ideally suited to undergo the obvious growth that the story requires of her. As if to underscore that point, early on, she laments, “I hate everyone, but I still think I’m better than everyone else.” Indeed: She resents a younger underling at work who lands clients faster, offends the rest of the office, and struggles to admit she has obligations beyond the office. But once she accepts the responsibility of caring for Maddie, she gradually finds a more constructive vessel for her attitude — helping the shy pariah deal with social anxieties of her own, reject her bullies and come out of her shell.
Gradually, she discovers Maddie has been shoehorned by her parents into a narrow set of expectations. They expect her to take ballerina lessons, but she’s really into karate, so Kate lets her go for it and bonds with the affable black-belt instructor (“Atlanta” rapper Brian Tyree Henry) in the process. She turns a blind eye when Maddie meets a younger Juggalo at the convenience story, balking at his obsession but realizing just how much his proselytizing appeals to Maddie. Meanwhile, Kate contends with the banal challenges of hanging around suburbia, epitomized by an overly judgemental mother in the neighborhood (Kate McKinnon with an evil grin, owning the few scenes that call for her help).
It’s all endearing enough, carried along by Schilling’s investment in a role that makes you wonder why she hasn’t carried a major studio rom-com yet (the delay is even more extreme when you consider that it’s been three years after she appeared in the sex comedy “The Overnight” and five years after the first season of “Orange is the New Black”). Steinel writes punchlines for laughs just well enough to suggest she could apply those skills to a bigger tapestry. However, “Family” never gets beyond the hints of possibilities found throughout its premise. Kate’s a compelling figure, and ideally situated to mesh with a young girl undergoing many of the same hardships, but the older woman’s personal life barely carries much weight even when the full extent of her background comes into view. She’s more of a sketch, and so’s the movie, right down to those Juggalos.
“Family” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, a world away from studio comedy “Blockers,” which had a much larger impact. But that movie, directed by Kay Cannon, illustrates the type of comedic romp that “Family” aspires to create — an intergenerational conflict about upper-middle class white America working through everyday problems with a few outrageous twists. Chasing that tradition, “Family” is funny in bits and pieces, but so obvious in terms of its eventual direction that it might have been better served by less plot and more clowning around. The Juggalos are both its saving grace and a hint of the wild vessel that might have been.
“Family” premiered in the narrative competition at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Sony Pictures holds world rights, but it is currently seeking U.S. distribution.