Movies + TV

The Kids Stay in the Picture

Movies and TV shows about the joys and pains of being related.

TheSquidandtheWhale_recsThe Squid and the Whale (2005)
This drama/comedy, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is one of my favorite New York City movies. You’ve got the Natural History Museum, Chinese restaurants, writers, and disaffected youth. You’ve also got estranged parents separated by Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The story follows the Berkman family as it falls apart, an unraveling that’s as funny as it is sad. The two sons (Jesse Eisenberg as the older brother and Owen Kline as the younger brother) are weird and awkward and terrific. Along with their parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney), they’re experts at getting under one another’s skin. The younger son masturbates in his school library, the older one is a jerk to his first real girlfriend, the dad sleeps with a much younger woman who also happens to be his student, and the mom hooks up with her son’s tennis coach. Coincidentally, if you pause at just the right moment, when the dad, a creative writing professor, invites his student/girlfriend (Anna Paquin) to move into his house, you can see me among the other “students” filing out of the class. I got the part (as an unpaid extra with no lines) because a friend was working on the movie and, since it was set in the 1980s, she thought I “had the wardrobe.” That still doesn’t feel like a compliment, but the movie is wonderful. —Emma S.

The Woodmans movie posterThe Woodmans (2010)
You need to know about Francesca Woodman. She started taking photos of herself and other girls her age in nature, in motion, in strange haunted rooms, and, a lot of the time, in the nude when she was a teenager. Her art is beautiful but troubling, especially when you know that she committed suicide in 1981, at the age of 22. This documentary is about her parents, George and Betty Woodman; her older brother, Charles; and, of course, Francesca herself. Using old family photos, family artifacts, and Francesca’s own photos and videos, it tells the story of the family’s life before and after Francesca’s death, and how her passing affects them to this day. All the Woodmans are artists, whether they make performance art or pottery, but Francesca remains the most famous among them. Because she is not alive to speak for herself, we never really know how she felt about her parents. But it seems to me the Woodmans’ home was a strange one to grow up in, one in which art-making was valued above, and at the cost of, more “normal” things like school or spending time together. It’s heartbreaking to watch the family wonder whether the way Francesca was brought up may have had anything to do with her death. And some of the art that comes out of that wondering is…well, I’ll let you decide. —Monika

BradyBunchHour_recsThe Brady Bunch Hour (1976–1977, ABC)
Have you ever wondered what happened to the Brady Bunch after their series ended? As a serious Brady enthusiast, I’ve done my research, and I discovered something so brilliant, so out of this world, and so, so, bad that it’s good: The Brady Bunch Hour (also known as The Brady Bunch Variety Hour). This glorious show starred the original cast,* all grown up and singing, dancing, and telling hideously bad scripted jokes on a glitzy ’70s TV set. My favorite thing about it is that apparently almost none of the Brady kids were trained in singing or dancing, and you particularly notice Peter, Bobby, and Cindy struggling with the choreography and to stay in tune. If you wanna jump right into the weird and wonderful world of the Hour, the “Disco Medley” is my favorite number. It’s completely cringe-worthy but also fantastic because that “perfect family” facade the TV family had going all those years finally disappears. I’m telling you, it is the stuff dreams are made of. Those weird dreams you wake up from and say, “What the HELL WAS THAT?!” —Minna
* Except for Eve Plumb, who played Jan in the original series. Geri Reischl plays Jan in the variety show and became a cult figure affectionately known as “Fake Jan,” referenced in this episode of The Simpsons.

RealLife_recsReal Life (1979)
In the 1970s, PBS aired a mini-series called An American Family, which documented the real-life activities of…an American family. This was before reality TV, so not only was the series a total experiment, it also legitimately shocked people. Inspired by the controversy, one of my favorite funny dudes, the director Albert Brooks, parodied the new genre with his 1979 comedy Real Life. In this movie, Brooks plays a self-absorbed director (he wants to win an Academy Award AND a Nobel Prize) who pushes himself upon an ultimately boring family from Phoenix, Arizona, to make a documentary about their lives. There’s fire and adultery, plus some terrifying futuristic cameras, and the family almost gets torn apart. It’s a vintage spoof of reality television that’s still pretty brilliant, especially considering how Brooks’s character constantly constructs and warps the family’s interactions for the good of his movie. Sounds familiar, right? —Hazel

Crooklyn_recsCrooklyn (1994)
It’s the summer of 1973, and the five Carmichael kids are free to roam the front stoops and wide sidewalks of their Brooklyn neighborhood—as long as they’re within shouting distance of their sweet but super-tough mom, Carolyn, and their gentle musician dad, Woody. Spike Lee directed Crooklyn and wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay with his sister, Joie Lee, and their brother, Cinqué Lee, and you can feel their affection for the time, place, and people they knew gushing all over this movie. Troy, the only daughter in the Carmichael family, is nine years old and holding her own with her brothers, who constantly rib her and each other with mostly friendly insults during tag and other sidewalk games (a scene involving a round of jumprope and a cat is particularly memorable). Money gets tight for the middle-class family, which puts a strain on Carolyn and Woody’s relationship. Troy gets sent “down South” to stay with her aunt, uncle, and cousin for a few weeks in a much quieter, frillier household than she’s used to. When she comes back home, the family dynamic has changed in an irreversible way. The movie ends with an abrupt and heartbreaking twist, but one that shows exactly how much of her mother’s toughness Troy inherited. —Lena

Pariah_recsPariah (2011)
This is the first movie by Dee Rees, a writer and director who earned her stripes as a script supervisor for her mentor Spike Lee. The film follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a shy teenage girl from Brooklyn, as she begins to experiment with her queer identity and discovers poetry as a way of expressing her pent-up emotions. We meet her in a club where she’s encouraged by her more confident friend Laura (Pernell Walker) to chat up and hook up with girls, but she’s not quite sure enough of herself to make a move. On the bus ride to her home—where she lives with her straight-laced Christian mother, emotionally distant father, and popular, confident sister—Alike switches her do-rag, cap, and baggy clothes for hoop earrings and a fitted T-shirt to appease her mom. Alike’s parents suspect she’s not straight, but they avoid the subject, opting instead to encourage her to be more like her sister and to spend less time with Laura. Alike’s parents’ relationship crumbles as they battle with their fears about their daughter’s sexuality and what they think it says about them. Meanwhile, Alike is falling hard and fast for a girl her mom introduced to her at church in an attempt to put her on the “right path.” (Sorry, Mom.) Throughout the film, Laura, who dropped out of school to earn money after being kicked out of her house for being gay, serves as a worst-case scenario for Alike. Watching Alike navigate these tough and conflicting options is stunning, and the decision she ultimately arrives at makes me sob happy tears every time. —Brodie

Roseanne_recsRoseanne (1988–1997, ABC)
Roseanne completely blew my mind when I first started watching it in fifth grade because the Conners, a working-class family from suburban Illinois, were the most REAL people I’d ever seen on television. Roseanne cycles through a range of working-class jobs at factories, department stores, and restaurants, and her husband Dan works in construction. Their children, Becky, Darlene, and D.J., fight like actual siblings and struggle with problems that feel true to life, and not the watered-down sitcom version. Becky has an abusive boyfriend, for example, and Darlene…I felt like Darlene and I could have been friends! We both went vegetarian and started wearing all black around the same time. Their parents often got frustrated, but their love was always clear, and sometimes they made controversial decisions, like letting Darlene’s boyfriend move into their house after Roseanne saw his mom verbally abusing him. These issues, as well as teen pregnancy and gay rights, were dealt with in an honest way when most shows were avoiding them all together. And while nothing was ever dismissively laughed away, laughter—especially Roseanne’s amazing cackle, which you can hear at the end of the opening credits—was a big part of how the Conners coped. —Stephanie

Stella_recStella (1990)
Struggling-single-mom movies get me every time, but Stella is the cherry on the whipped cream on the icing on the cake. Based on the 1923 novel Stella Dallas, it’s about a passionate, selfless woman who is poor but wants everything for her beloved daughter. Bette Midler plays the title character: a brassy cabaret singer/bartender in upstate New York. She has a tryst with a handsome young doctor, whose high-society Manhattan lifestyle is the exact opposite of her day-to-day cavorting with ne’er-do-wells. She gets pregs with his baby but refuses to marry him, because she knows their lives would never intersect otherwise. Even still, she’s determined to give their daughter, Jenny, everything she herself never had. Jenny and Stella’s relationship is sweet and genuine, and the plot documents their struggles from Jenny’s birth through her young adulthood, occasionally pausing for the perfectly placed mother-daughter duet. When her dad comes back on the scene, Jenny is shuttled between parents and class strata, and Stella prepares herself to make the ultimate sacrifice. Spoiler alert: You will cry. —Julianne

JulieJohnson_recsJulie Johnson (2001)
Because of my obsession with Courtney Love, I searched high and low for this indie film, in which she has a lead part. I ended up having to pay money for it, but it was well worth it. Julie Johnson has an amazing cast, a score by Angelou Badalamenti (who wrote the music for Twin Peaks), a soundtrack by Liz Phair, and a refreshingly female-centered plot. Julie, played by Lili Taylor at her very best, is a New Jersey housewife who goes back to school and discovers she has a talent for math. Suddenly, she’s seeing real possibilities for her future. Her husband, though, is not just unsupportive, he’s outright abusive. Julie takes a stand and leaves him, and, inspired by this act of liberation, her friend Claire (Courtney) moves in with Julie and her two kids, forming a new sort of family. When Claire and Julie’s friendship deepens into romance, Julie’s kids don’t respond well, and Claire has trouble fitting in with Julie’s new college friends. This is very much a character-driven story—my favorite sort, especially when the characters are women coming into their own. —Stephanie

SONY-JUOS-01_Onesheet_Layout 1Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody Allen’s latest movie is about wealth, lies, breakdowns, and sisters. The great Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine French, a newly homeless ex-socialite whose businessman husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), is in jail for his part in a Bernie Madoff–esque scandal. Even though she’s now penniless and living on the streets, Jasmine’s warped perception of what “success” means still includes Louis Vuitton and Stoli martinis. And because she’s so used to living in the lap of luxury, she’s also basically helpless. Eventually she has to move in with her sister, Ginger, who lives a modest but happy life in San Francisco that couldn’t be more different from Jasmine’s old lifestyle. Jasmine is rude to her sister and oblivious to her generosity, which is annoying at first but seems particularly heinous when you learn more about their history. But Blanchett’s performance is so GOOD that even when you hate Jasmine, you sympathize with her, and sometimes she even makes you laugh (not at her, but at her on-purpose hilariousness). The relationship between the two sisters shows that family isn’t everything, and that it’s sometimes the worst. —Hazel

RachelGettingMarried_recsRachel Getting Married (2008)
Rachel Getting Married is less “Rachel’s getting married, hooray!” and more “Rachel has to deal with her family because they’re all here for her wedding.” At the beginning of the film, Rachel’s sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) is given temporary leave from a rehab facility so she can go home for the big day. While her family seems happy that she’s there, having her around again brings up a lot of really painful memories. Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) cares for Kym, but anyone who has ever felt like a sibling has stolen their thunder or monopolized their parents’ attention will totally relate to how she feels throughout this movie. The man Rachel marries is played by TV on the Radio singer and Rookie Grown Man Tunde Adebimpe, who beautifully sings Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” to his bride during the wedding scene, melting hearts everywhere. But I still feel the need to point out that their Indian-themed wedding seems odd and cultural-appropriation-y, given the fact that no one in the wedding party is of Indian descent. Aside from that, though, this is a great, heart-wrenching movie. —Brodie

Gilmore_girls_recsGilmore Girls (2000–2007, WB/CW)
If I could be any TV character, I would choose Rory Gilmore. I want her brains and her education at prep school and Yale; her quirky small-town life in Stars Hollow, Connecticut; her seemingly stodgy but ultimately sweet grandparents; and, most of all, her awesome mom, Lorelai. Lorelai had Rory at the age of 16 and raised her on her own (and with some help from the other residents of Stars Hollow). We catch up with them when Rory herself is 16, and the pair have developed their own super-fast, pop-culture-referencing conversational style that is almost like a secret language. They go through their ups and downs over the course of the series, but when Rory and Lorelai are on the outs, it breaks my heart more than any of their on-screen romances could, because theirs is truly the GREATEST LOVE OF ALL. —Stephanie

RunningonEmpty_recsRunning on Empty (1988)
In the beginning of this drama, Danny Pope’s mother dyes his hair blond from its original brown. Re-inventing your look is something I’ve always seen as a proclamation of independence, especially for a teenager, but for Danny (brilliantly played by River Phoenix) it’s a matter of survival. His family is on the run from the FBI, so his hair color is a group decision, as is every other part of his life, down to whom he eats lunch with and what his name will be tomorrow. Danny’s struggle to break away from his overprotective mom (Christine Lahti) and dad (Judd Hirsch) is bittersweet, especially when he starts to fall in love for the first time. Even though my family never ran from the law, I could still relate to Danny’s burning desire to escape from his parents at the time he needs them the most. —Cynthia

ordinarypeopleposterOrdinary People (1980)
Every year my high school had what they pompously called a SYMPOSIUM where they would play a movie for the entire student body, then we’d spend the rest of the day discussing it in our various classes. When I was a freshman, that movie was Ordinary People. It’s about this family, the Jarretts, who have just lost a son/brother to a boating accident. The surviving son, a teenager named Conrad, was with him when he died and was unable to save him. Wracked with guilt, he attempts suicide. None of this is a spoiler—the movie starts after all that has happened, as Conrad is returning home from a stay at a psychiatric hospital to find that his brother’s death has brought all of his family’s issues raging to the surface. His mother, played to scary perfection by Mary Tyler Moore, cares more about how her family looks to other people than she does about her actual family. His father (Donald Sutherland) is a big doof who can’t express love or even ask for anything that he wants. Conrad blames himself for his brother’s death, and so does his mom. Life in the Jarrett home is incredibly bleak, stuffed to choking with bitterness and tension. School mostly sucks for Conrad, too. The only relief he gets is in the form of an almost comically compassionate therapist, who in one scene tells Conrad “I’m your friend” in a way that legit could make me cry just remembering it.
     If you come from a dramatically dysfunctional family, you spend a lot of your life feeling alone in the world. Most of time, popular culture only makes it worse. Families on TV and in movies are adorably quirky but rarely deeply troubled, except for in horror films, and then the trouble is too over-the-top to be as disturbing as real life. You almost never see a family like yours depicted anywhere—and when you do, it feels crazy, impossible, surreal. Nothing as terrible as the death of a child happened in my family, but Conrad Jarrett’s home life felt so familiar to me that, sitting in the dark in our school cafeteria, I felt my face get hot with recognition. I was a little embarrassed, like my secret had been discovered and a whole room of mostly strangers was watching it play out. But the movie also made me feel less alone, at a time when I desperately needed that. It wasn’t long after that “symposium” that I asked my parents to send me to therapy. That therapist shined a little light at the end of the tunnel that was my adolescence, and I spent the next four years moving toward it. People say too often that movies or books or whatever “changed their life,” but in my case, Ordinary People really did. —Anaheed ♦

14 Comments

  • Tyknos93 November 14th, 2013 11:15 PM

    Okay, this is like the first time I OWN nearly a third of the movies posted here! I nearly tumbled out the bed when I saw SatW posted first. I’m always quoting that movie! I can’t believe you were in it Emma! So jealous.
    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • honorarygilmoregal November 15th, 2013 12:12 AM

    No surprise considering my username, but I love Gilmore Girls! It’s such a great family show and I love the Lorelai/Rory dynamic.

    Another one of my favorite shows about family, though it’s not on the list, is Modern Family. It’s so funny and I like the different types of families it documents. :)

  • amescs November 15th, 2013 3:05 AM

    these all sound great and I recently watched Blue Jasmine and loved it, so thanks for all the recommendations.

    also, sorry to be annoying, but I noticed that in the Pariah paragraph, 16th line, “their daugther’s sexuality and what they think it says about them.” there is a spelling error for daughter. Sorry if these bug you, I just thought I’d point it out :-)

  • photi November 15th, 2013 9:23 AM

    so much nostalgia for gilmore girls ughh <3 <3 <3

  • soviet_kitsch November 15th, 2013 9:43 AM

    my mom and i are always being told we’re like lorelai and rory gilmore, hehe. roseanne has to be one of the best shows of all time, and the way things are handled is marvelous. it’s got a lot of great one-liners and you always feel the love between the characters <3

  • ageofparanoia November 15th, 2013 11:48 AM

    You should see Imaginary Heroes, it has a similar plot to Ordinary People. I loved it, it’s so well done! I hope you like it too.

  • oolretaw November 15th, 2013 2:06 PM

    I LOVED blue jasmine. Great pick!

    beccawaterloo.blogspot.com

  • Brodie November 15th, 2013 6:49 PM

    OMG Minna the Brady Bunch Variety Hour! This is unbelievable. Be honest: you’re the YouTube user “BBVHFan”, aren’t you?

  • apollo18 November 16th, 2013 11:31 AM

    These are great! The Wonder Years should get some love, though. Just the right amount of corniness and so much going on with Winnie’s family and the relationship between the Arnold brothers is so real and perfect. *sighs deeply*

  • Ava Marie November 16th, 2013 12:13 PM

    Love the list, but no Freaks and Geeks?!

  • saramarit November 16th, 2013 12:29 PM

    It’s too obvious but I love The Darjeeling Limited for it’s depection of siblings. I’m an only child so I’m really fascinated by sibling relationships.

    Everyone NEEDS to see the Mexican film Abel, written and directed by Diego Luna. It’s about a child who decides he is the father of his sublings and his mother’s husband after his own father leaves. It’s very moving but also really funny and times and the kid who plays the main part is amazing.

    Alamar is a beautifully hypnotic documentary following a father and son who live in Bancho Chinchorro, a coral reef off the coast of Mexico. The son is about to move away to Europe to live with his mother permanently and his father is showing him the traditional ways of life beofre he leaves. It’s truly beautiful.

  • dreamygirl November 16th, 2013 11:49 PM

    Emma, I just watched the Squid and the Whale and I really loved it. But the distracting part is that it was film TWO BLOCKS from my house and Jesse Eisenberg/Walt goes to the subway station I take to get to school and it’s all in the part of Park Slope where my life so far had taken place. It also inspired me to visit Prospect Park today, which was a really good choice because it’s actually stunning right now with all the different colored trees that all fit the Squid and the Whale’s color scheme super well. Thought I’d share that, thanks for the recommendation xxx