The Family Fang (2016)

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Some films have great potential; an unexpected premise, a storyline that raises challenging questions and a direction that could take you down one or more interesting paths. The Family Fang, the second feature film directed by actor Jason Bateman, is such a film. Camille and Caleb Fang are avant-garde performance artists who only hesitate momentarily when they become parents, quickly incorporating their children Annie and Baxter into their performances. Their aim is to upset the status quo and watch as innocent participants become drawn into their elaborately orchestrated social mischief.

As children, Annie and Baxter seem to enjoy the chaos and make-believe as they fake shoot-outs at a bank or smile broadly at a portrait photographer as blood oozes from their mouths. Their parents’ art seems no different from childish pranks and they are definitely in on the joke, called ‘Child A’ and ‘Child B’ by their parents and the press. We see these scenes in flashback as a grown up Annie and Baxter (Nicole Kidman and Bateman) look through footage of the performances.

As adults, A and B are not so happy. Annie has achieved fame and a certain notoriety as an actor and Baxter is struggling to match the success of his first novel. We see them trying to stay true to their parents’ credo – “Don’t be afraid. Own the moment. If you’re in control then the chaos will happen around you and not to you.” – but we also see that they resent their childhood and the feeling they were secondary to their parents’ art. They are stirred to action when Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) disappear and are feared dead. Are they victims or is this just one more elaborate performance?

I said this film had great potential and it is in the many questions and threads of subtext it raises. Like Captain Fantastic, it examines parenting, this time from the viewpoint of adult children, and explores the balance between the needs of parent and child, the difficulty children have in taking responsibility for their own lives and choices when they are grown, the expectations we have of mothers and the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parenting. It also explores the importance of art in challenging social norms and the trope that great (mostly male) artists make terrible partners and parents (see Salt of the Earth and Fassbinder if you want examples of this).

The flashbacks of the family’s performances are delightful and we see the moment when the children become disenfranchised. It is the point where they are no longer in on the joke, their inability to “own the moment” aligning them with everyone else their parents are trying to unsettle. I found myself siding with the parents, wondering when A and B would finally apply the central premise of their parents’ art to themselves. Caleb and Camille’s disappearance is truly a mystery and, like A and B, I couldn’t tell whether it was an elaborate ruse to teach them a lesson or a genuine tragedy. The yard sale is a lovely scene that questions the grief we hold tightly to and how we deal with loss.

I was really disappointed in how this story resolved. With all its potential, it seemed to choose the most prosaic conclusion, throwing aside the subtleties of the narrative for a two-dimensional ending. The complexities of Caleb and Camille are unimaginatively undermined and the coincidences that lead A and B to an understanding seem contrived. I would have liked more ambiguity and less convenient scapegoat.

Available on DVD

Bechdel test – pass
3.5 stars

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