Depicting family life has been a cinematic mainstay since the silent era. Yet among this year’s Oscar contenders, the fractured family unit seems even more central — with the added twist that in many of these pics the family fares surprisingly well in the final reel.
From light films like “Juno” to dark explorations like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” family life in all its tattered glory figures prominently.
“It’s a confined environment where people have to contend with each other,” says Tamara Jenkins, who wrote and helmed “The Savages.” “It’s a hothouse of human behavior. In my movie, there is a very frustrated family, with members who haven’t seen each other in some time. And against their wills, they get dragged back together.”
Nancy Oliver, who penned “Lars and the Real Girl,” maintains that the attraction for auds is the universality of family tensions — even when depicted in exceedingly strained terms, as in her film, in which a brother and sister-in-law have to accept a sex doll as a repressed young man’s girlfriend.
“If there’s one thing that connects all our experiences as people, it’s weird families,” Oliver says. “Surviving them, participating in them. And our dealing with this is part of our whole foundation as well-adjusted, or not well-adjusted, human beings.”
Christopher Hampton, who transformed Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” into a screenplay, concurs. “We all have families, and we all have troubles in our lives,” he says, “so it is one of the subjects that everyone connects to. I think we’ve all done things that in retrospect might seem difficult to forgive. And when we realize that, we have to ask if we can forgive ourselves first. That’s the basis of this story.”
Even in films primarily about other things, family is never far from the surface this year. Take “Sweeney Todd,” the tale of a homicidal barber, based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical. Here, scribe John Logan turns the role of Toby from a mentally slow young adult into a street urchin, the better for Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett to mother.
Likewise, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” has less to do with family than how a middle-aged man suffering a debilitating stroke deals with his condition. But, according to Ronald Harwood, the film’s screenwriter, family dynamics play no small role in the pic.
“When he says, ‘I can’t even touch my kids,’ ” Harwood says of the film’s protagonist, “he feels a sense of family much more than he ever did when he was normal. And I think there’s a marvelous thing that (helmer) Julian Schnabel has done near the end, when the mistress waves from the window, and he goes to get his kids at his (partner’s) house. I think that rings a bell for people who are divorced or have two families.”
Such extended families have impacted screenwriters, like “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody. “It was really important to me to have a positive, cool stepmom character, because I myself am a stepmom,” says Cody. “I can’t think of the last time I saw a stepmom character in a movie that was cheered for. I wrote the character to be a cheerleader for Juno, because I always think that that’s what my role as a stepmom should be.”
Jenkins acknowledges the appeal of the fractured family: “The idealized family is just that, not a reality.” She likens the present trend to the emergence of the antihero in the 1970s. “Antiheros are attractive because people can relate to that, and it’s the same with imperfect families.”