Devout wife and mother Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner) has been nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year. Consumed with appearances and accolades, Eileen would love to boast such a title. But more so, she craves the award's special bonus: a prayer of absolution pronounced by an archbishop.
But there's a problem. Eileen's long list of service and good deeds are not enough to win. The committee also evaluates the candidate's family. "Our choice has to be beyond reproach," says Eileen's monsignor. "But you shouldn't worry. You have a perfect family." Uh oh. In truth, Eileen's husband (Michael McGrady) is a recovering alcoholic. He daughter (Emily Dechanel) is a lesbian. And her son, (Jason Ritter) is leaving his wife for a mistress.
Eileen is divided between appearing to be the perfect Catholic and accepting her family in all their messiness.
This drama-comedy feels cut from the same cloth as 2004's Saved!, ABC's GCB and current film-fest indie The Wise Kids in its exploration of religion, sexuality, and judgment. Like those works, it is a Christian-learns-to-be-a-better-Christian-from-non-Christians story. It contains some well-deserved satire and truth, but will also divide audiences. Some in the church will be angered. Some will relate; feeling understood and vindicated. Some will be convicted. But I found it all declawed by poor filmmaking.
Director Anne Renton's first feature film feels hijacked by its agenda. Ironically, it seems to suffer from the same issue that often hurts Christian-made movies—a preachy lesson that overtakes story. In promoting love and acceptance over rules and condemnation, it can be over-the-top, predictable, and heavy-handed. Nothing is subtle, there's no nuance, the rhetoric is trite, and it ends far too tidily to be taken seriously.
Tonally, The Perfect Family is like a Hallmark movie without any middle ground; it swings wildly from outlandish comedy to heart-wringing drama. It's terribly uneven throughout. Surprisingly, Academy Award nominee Turner's performance is, at times, almost embarrassingly overacted. And other times, she delivers perfect, heart-wrenching scenes. Satirically, the movie can at times hit truth square in the eye and other times, it swings and misses with great aplomb. For instance, Catholic rituals and church politics can be realistically and deservingly jabbed in one scene but in the next, Catholic beliefs and rituals are mischaracterized (like with the concept of absolution).
Eileen's journey has just enough depth, sharpness, and honesty in its look at faith—and the balance of love and Truth—to make one wish it was in a better movie. Or one that had more respect for its lead character. Eileen, at times, is a complex woman. But, when seemingly convenient for the screenwriters, she's merely a caricature. I would have liked to have seen a more honest, earnest, and steady character study on what drives her—and changes her.
Eileen's deliberately applied sheen of outward perfection and drive to do good works comes out of guilt and fear that she's bound for hell. She is afraid there's nothing she can do to be forgiven; she can't, she fears, earn absolution through her repentance, penance or deeds. This is, of course, true. She can't. But instead of turning to the free gift of grace, she tries to win the absolution of sins as a prize. And adding more sins to the list to win it doesn't seem to bother her.