Lights, camera, action – Representation of families on the big screen

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The Family Law Partners’ blog is usually focused on, you’ve guessed it, family law. Families are complicated things and come in all shapes and sizes. So when my team decided to sponsor the Brighton Cinecity 2015 Film Festival it got me to thinking about the films I had seen and enjoyed where the notions of ‘family’ are explored. This was a perfect excuse to do something completely different and have a ponder on the films where the family unit is presented in unconventional terms; where the notion of family is stretched and re-imagined. This is my film list of families in all their dysfunctional celluloid glory. All views, especially the absurd ones, are my own.

Little Miss Sunshine (2007)

The dysfunctional family par excellence. My abiding memory of the film is the family claustrophobically squashed together in their yellow VW van travelling a very long way to get their daughter to a beauty pageant. The grandfather has been evicted from his care home for taking drugs and the son has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his ambition of becoming a test pilot. Oh, and there is a dead body in the boot.

The VW van breaks down more often than the family but despite the mishaps, you know it is going to get them there in the end. The outstanding sequence is the VW’s testy reluctance to start unless it has got to a certain speed, which requires the warring family to unite in pushing the van until the engine turns over but then running along it to jump into the open side door to get back on the family bus. Proof that no film about family relations is complete without a scene of mild peril.

Village of the Damned (1960)

A strange film involving all the women of child bearing age in a sleepy English town falling pregnant overnight, most probably, if fantastically, through a mass conception originating from the stars. The result, some months later, is spookily clever kids with cut glass accents and Boris Johnson hairdos who can exercise mind control over the adults around them. Every parent’s nightmare. Just try sending this lot to bed without any supper.

The film was based upon John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, which I think is a better title as the exploits of cuckoos has always disturbed me. The film is an exaggerated but entertaining metaphor for the subliminal anxiety felt by most parents, usually after an epic domestic argument with our little darlings, that they cannot possibly be the fruit of our loins.

Blade Runner (1982)

In this dystopian future, the DNA spliced and diced Replicants endowed with physical prowess, enhanced intellect and manufactured memories, are looking for their creator, the genius ‘father’ who concocted them in a test-tube. The film is gorgeously set in a multicultural, film-noir mega-city scape. The ‘off-world’ replicants move through the dark, rain-lashed metropolis, exhibiting very human anxieties and seeking answers to the big questions about life, such as how long will I live, is that my memory or someone else’s and who the hell is my dad and where the hell is he? I remember sitting in the cinema when Blade Runner came out and the biggest shock of the future to me was that the leader of the replicants was called Roy. The only Roy’s I knew were Roy of the Rovers and a bloke round the corner who wore overalls with a flat cap and smoked Capstans. What brave new world that has such Roy’s within it?

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

I defy any adult to resist the charms of Totoro, the slightly scary but supremely cuddly woodland spirit befriended by two young girls worrying about the fate of their hospitalised mother. The world is a strange place as we grow up; the rules made by adults don’t always make sense and the things kept from us are sources of anxiety. The children retreat to a world of the imagination (or is it real?) and get a lift on the Catbus. If only the Catbus was real, arriving on the darkest night, in the worst weather, at the remotest stop, to whisk us off to where ever it is we need to go.

Ikiru (Living) (1952)

OK, I’m stretching it here but can community be family? Ikiru is the story of a Japanese civil servant, facing a terminal illness and considering how meaningless his life has been. His immediate family show no interest in him and he is a lost figure until he seizes the chance to turn a parcel of desolate wasteland into a children’s playground. The bureaucratic odds are monumentally against him but he struggles quietly, tenaciously on to achieve his aim. His legacy is a gift to the children he will never live to meet. At the film’s conclusion and near death, we see him sitting on a swing in the completed playground. I may have shed a manly tear, I really can’t recall after all these years.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

I could pick any number of Wes Anderson’s films but it had to be this one. Mr Fox is so intent upon pursuing his thieving ambitions against three local farmers he endangers his family physically and emotionally. As you would expect from a film based on Roald Dahl’s original story, there are lashings of violence and near death escapes.

At the film’s centre is the relationship between Mr Fox, his son Ash and his nephew Kristofferson. Poor Ash is terribly glum as he struggles to match up to his dashing father and then along comes his cousin, Kristofferson, who is cool in every conceivable way that Ash is not. Most of us have grown up with a perfect cousin and we feel Ash’s pain as he is eclipsed by Kristofferson’s brilliance. Boy, the teenage years can be brutal.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Yes, I know we have to endure Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent but the torture is worth it. Poor old dad slaving away in thrall to Mammon and losing sight of the most valuable asset on his balance sheet: his children. Mr Banks can’t see beyond his career and we need the anarchic Mary Poppins to fly in on the wind and sort things out. And talking of wind, the perfect remedy to align the family chakras is to go and fly a kite, up to the highest height. Perfection. My mum took me to see this film when it first came out.? Yes, I am that old, and I haven’t stopped watching it since.

That’s it from me; I’m off to jump on the Catbus, which stops at The Level in Brighton if you must know. What are your favourite family-flavoured films?

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