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.
When a tragedy strikes, we see her character's depth; she has much love. When the chips are down, she is the first one there. Still, she can't get her head around how she can be in the mess with loved ones without appearing messy to others.
The messiest, most complex moments of Eileen's struggle are the film's best moments. She fights viciously with her daughter; bringing up good points about why it's okay for her to be judged but not to judge. Eileen can't stand to stay at an event with her daughter and her daughter's partner; instead, she lingers not far away. She tenderly shares her conflicting emotions with her husband.
But all of that is glossed over with a rushed montage-ending that suggests an easy fix. It just gets too pat and too simple when a controversial Catholic priest (who ministers to sinners on the down-low) suggests "our only real obligation is to [be] united in love." I would have liked to see more of how this evolution in Eileen takes place and how she really changes. How does she now balance truth and love? Has her understanding of Scripture changed? Has her prayer life? Her view of God? Messiness seems trumpeted by the film until we're talking about the complex, breathing, and dynamic nature of a real faith life. The best stab the movie makes at this is when Eileen finally answers a tough theological question with an honest and vulnerable, "I don't know."
The happy ending (and somewhat out-of-the-blue family reunion) makes it seem like all Eileen had to do to be content and to be a better family member was just stop being so … Christian. This implication casts doubt on some of the truly good parts of Eileen's worldview. The radical, un-nuanced switch seems to communicate that all of her previous stances—like saying her idiot son probably shouldn't just walk out on his wife—were wrong.
One of Eileen's best—and most true—quotes seems to be completely negated later on. She scolds her son for leaving his wife because he's unhappy by saying, "Who cares if you're happy? You need to do the right thing." Given how this subplot unfolds, it seems this stance is viewed as draconian. The perfect family, it seems, is one where the individuals are out to just get what's in it for them, to be happy and, in turn, allow the others to define their own happiness.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What do you think of Eileen's faith in the beginning? What do you think of it in the end?
- What do you think of Father Joe? Is he loving sinners like Jesus? Or watering down the gospel?
- Father Joe tells Eileen, "God sits at the head of your family. The only real obligation you have is to just be one unit, united in love." What do you make of that?
- Eileen says, "In order to be truly forgiven, one must come to terms with our choices." What do you think of that concept?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Perfect Family is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material. There is some language; douchebag is used repeatedly in a scene for comedic effect. The movie touches on numerous hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, and more.
Photos © Certainty Films
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