Taylor Schilling plays a woman stuck caring for a misfit 11-year-old in Laura Steinel’s comic debut.
A self-improvement-through-childcare comedy exposing the hitherto unknown potential of the Insane Clown Posse to enable young girls’ emotional growth, Laura Steinel’s Family introduces an 11-year-old girl ready to run off and join the Juggalos. Playing the career-minded jerk stuck temporarily with caring for the kid, Taylor Schilling colors within the lines of the Bad Fill-in-the-Blank misbehavior genre, with a performance that is less debauched than self-centered to the point of criminal negligence. Enjoyable despite its familiarity, the pic has commercial appeal well beyond the Faygo-guzzling demographic.
Schilling’s Kate is her workplace’s requisite pariah — the one who says what she thinks without checking to see who might be standing behind her. Her tactlessness is so extreme she isn’t even welcome at office celebrations (though the call of cake is too strong for her to ignore).
She’s the kind of career striver who has not only rejected the notion of starting her own family but has practically deleted siblings from her memory banks as well. When she gets an emergency call from her nearby brother (Eric Edelstein), she has to be reminded where he lives, and she certainly doesn’t remember the name of his pre-teen Maddie (Bryn Vale). But Maddie’s grandmother is dying, and her parents need one day to go move her into hospice; though Kate puts up a fight, she agrees to watch Maddie for the night while they’re away.
Even the briefest stay away from her tidy apartment life requires suburban compromises Kate is unwilling to make: She can’t bring herself to shut the garage door at the request of the family’s next-door neighbor Jill, the kind of capital-M Mom who has the neighborhood association’s bylaws memorized. (A high-strung Kate McKinnon is ideal here, over-friendly with an undercurrent of I will rip your eyes out.)
Kate is late to pick Maddie up from ballet, of course, and catches the stout child, in her ballerina garb, practicing kicks in the dojo next door. Sensei Pete (Brian Tyree Henry) has been happy to have her as an unofficial karate student for weeks; over dinner, Maddie explains that her parents are pushing her to be more feminine and fit in at school, where she is bullied.
This is a topic on which Kate can commiserate without feeling she has made an emotional investment. Asking to see pictures of the girls who torment her, Kate has fun eviscerating them: This one has boobs but will be fat before long; that one has a lazy eye — who the hell are they to mock a chubby nonconformist?! Cautiously questioned by the girl, who admires this confidence but feels nothing of the sort herself, Kate reveals a baseline truth: “I hate myself, but I still feel like I’m better than everybody else.”
When this overnight babysitting gig stretches out to a week, Kate has to juggle watching the kid with her work responsibilities, seeing for the first time what life is like for the colleagues she disdains. Steinel succinctly justifies some of Kate’s antisocial behaviors with scenes at the office: When she invents a “family emergency” to excuse being late for a meeting, the men in the room look sideways at her, as if she might be about to go baby-crazy on them; and an enthusiastic young hire who wants Kate to mentor her (Jessie Ennis) is all too ready to go drinking with clients if Kate needs to meet with Maddie’s teacher at school.
One of Kate’s neglectful moments leaves Maddie in the company of a kid (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido) who calls himself Baby Joker and loves the Insane Clown Posse. As he tells her about the Juggalos, who have formed an entire society-rejecting lifestyle around the band, Maddie decides she has found her people. Soon she’s putting on scary facepaint and doing tricks with spit.
Vale has a plainspoken stubbornness that highlights the unreasonableness of the rules Maddie’s expected to live by, making it easy for Schilling to connect the kid’s plight to Kate’s. Their quick but incomplete bond is easier to buy than the adult/kid pairings in some similar films, and Steinel doesn’t push it until a climax set at the infamous Gathering of the Juggalos. There, the film has fun with the subculture’s notoriety in funny if credibility-stretching ways, concluding that, whatever their outward signs of mayhem, “once you get past all that, they’re really kind of sweet.” Mini-interviews with real-life Juggalos over the closing credits cements the film’s obvious message: When the world treats you poorly, Family is wherever you find it.
Production company: Naegle Ink
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Bryn Vale, Brian Tyree Henry, Jessie Ennis, Blair Beeken, Matt Walsh, Allison Tolman, Eric Edelstein, Kate McKinnon, Fabrizio Guido
Director-screenwriter: Laura Steinel
Producers: Sue Naegle, Kit Giordano
Executive producers: Laura Steinel, Dan Kaplow, Taylor Schilling, Jeremy Garelick, Viviana Zarragoitia, Ali Jazayeri
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: Jennifer Klide
Costume designer: Lorraine Coppin
Editor: Glenn Garland
Composer: Jeremy Turner
Casting director: Amey Rene
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)