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Family Stories Make a Big Splash in Oscar Season

King Richard Power of the Dog
King Richard: Warner Bros.; Power of the Dog: Netflix; Parallel Mothers: Sony Pictures Classics

Is it possible that every best picture nominee this year will be about families? Among the 2021 Oscar contenders are “Belfast,” “CODA,” “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Mass,” “Parallel Mothers” and “The Power of the Dog” and there are plenty of other serious contenders with a similar focus.

It’s not unusual for drama to center on families; that’s been going on since the 5th century B.C., when Aeschylus wrote his “Oresteia.”

However, it IS unusual for one subject to dominate the Oscar roster.

Usually the Academy Awards offer a mix of topics, as last year when the eight BP contenders included two family-centric pieces, “The Father” and “Minari.” That modest percentage has been pretty consistent since the Oscars expanded the category with the 2009 films.

Many of the 2021 movies were planned long before COVID, so it’s interesting that they arrive at such a timely moment.

Sian Heder, the writer-director of “CODA,” tells Variety: “During COVID, the year of 2020 took everything away in a sense and people were trapped — either with their family or away from their family. Everybody took stock of what’s important.”

Marlee Matlin, a supporting-actress contender for the film, says, “COVID recharged our memories of being family.”

Zach Baylin scripted “King Richard,” centering on the father of Venus and Serena Williams. Baylin came to the project long before COVID, in fall 2017, at a meeting with Tim White (who runs Star Thrower production company with his brother Trevor).

“Richard” started filming in March 2020, then shut down for six or seven months. Baylin says, “The collective experience in COVID: Your life is frozen, and frozen within family unit. The lockdown crystallized that these are the most important things in life.”

As Baylin says, “The Williams family is so much about collective determination. It wasn’t just Richard’s plan; it was a total family effort from both parents and all five sisters. That became an integral part of the movie.”

Many films this year explore the ups and downs of families, and generally come to a positive conclusion, including “The Tender Bar,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero,” “C’mon C’mon,” “The Hand of God” and “The Humans.”

Other films have a more skeptical view at blood relations, such as “House of Gucci,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” “Spencer” and “The Lost Daughter,” in which Olivia Colman re-evaluates her life and concludes “I’m an unnatural mother.”

Other movies center on a group trying to create an ad-hoc family, such as “Luca,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and “West Side Story.”

It may be a coincidence that so many films arrived at such an opportune moment, or maybe Hollywood tapped into the zeitgeist. Filmmakers and studio executives need to be a little psychic in order to predict what audiences will want a few years in advance. This year, a lot of them had perfect timing.

In “Dune,” Mother Superior reminds Paul: “You have two birthrights.” He is of the House of Atreides, with his dad ruling planet Caladan. But his mother is a member of Bene Gesserit, and her mystical talents prove crucial.

In “Belfast,” Jamie Dornan debates whether to accept a job offer in England, separating him from his family. His father (Ciaran Hinds) says, “The whole family looks out for you and wherever you go, that’d be the truth.”

In “Bergman Island,” a film expert reminds the protagonist that Ingmar Bergman sired nine children from six different mothers, adding, “He wasn’t much of a family man.” The movie by Mia Hansen-Løve asks: Could Bergman have created all his films, TV works and plays if he had taken the time to be a better father?

Another absentee dad is at the center of Amazon’s “The Tender Bar,” directed by George Clooney. In a voiceover narration, adult J.R. (Tye Sheridan) says, “When you’re 11, everyone wants an Uncle Charlie.” J.R.’s journey includes his search for a father figure, which is filled by his uncle (Ben Affleck).

Pixar-Disney’s “Luca” centers on a similar search. Luca is part of a “sea monster” clan; he takes human form on dry land, because he has emotional needs that can’t be met by his underwater family. The film was scripted by Mike Jones and Jesse Andrews.

“Luca has a restrictive relationship with his parents and is determined to break out of that,” Jones says. “It’s a search for a new family.”

Andrews adds that it’s a “found family” on land: “You’re an outsider in your own family and that makes you an underdog, and you find other underdogs.”

Filmmakers this year have presented the family in ways that seem radical because they are so far removed from Hollywood’s usual approach.

For example, Netflix’s “The Lost Daughter” gives a startling view of motherhood: A realistic one. Over the years, movies have presented mothers who are monsters (“Mommie Dearest,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) or pure love (Marmee March, Ma Joad).

In “Lost Daughter,” which Maggie Gyllenhaal wrote and directed from a novel by Elena Ferrante, the protagonist Leda (an outstanding Olivia Colman) is neither terrifying nor Mother Earth. She’s human.

On vacation in Greece, she becomes fascinated with young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), who says of her young daughter, “She’s driving me crazy … sometimes I just can’t handle it.” Leda observes, “Children are a crushing responsibility”; it’s not a cry for help, not a complaint — it’s just a fact.

In any year, audiences could relate. But for those who have been in prolonged lockdown with their children, this is reassuring. The film is telling less-than-perfect parents, to use the current vernacular: You’ve been seen.

Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” offers another COVID-era reflection: There’s often trouble when families live in close quarters, such as the Burbank brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons) plus Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

“Respect,” starring the amazing Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, gives a nuanced spin to religion. Usually when Hollywood depicts a religious family, they are pious and firm in their convictions. Franklin’s father was a Baptist minister, C.L. Franklin, and in “Respect,” the Franklins are firm in their beliefs but exhibit every sign of human frailty. It hits home with families whose faith was challenged or strengthened — or both — during COVID.

The term “family movie” has gotten a bad rep because they often are calculated to appeal to the widest audience, with simplistic storytelling. Writer Baylin says the “King Richard” team talked about their film as not a “family movie” but a “movie about a family.” It’s a subtle but important distinction.

As “CODA’s” Heder sums up, “I think many people have emerged from the pandemic with the conclusion that nothing matters except the people we love. ‘CODA’ is a classic story but the timing here is important.”