(2010) Dramedy (Self-Released) Jill Pixley, Carlye Pollack, Jonathan Leveck, Colette Keen, George Killingsworth, Nick Frangione, Anne Darragh, Suzanna Aguayo, Nancy Carlin, Don Schwantz. Directed by Chris Brown
To utilize a bit of a Dickensian mash-up, Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times. Family get-togethers can be lovely and heart-warming – depending on the family. Some families should never get within a thousand miles of each other.
Fanny (Pixley) is a developmentally challenged woman living in a group home. She works for a candy factory and is obsessive-compulsive about washing her hands. She also practices her recorder at six in the morning, which really annoys her fellow residents in the home. She mostly keeps to herself, losing herself in her beloved horse books.
Annie (Pollack) is in the midst of planning her wedding, 18 months hence, to Todd (Frangione), a good-hearted stoner who has yet to find a job that isn’t beneath him. Annie is a bit of a Bridezilla, obsessing over details of her wedding to the point where a little valium might not be such a bad idea. However, any suggestions in that arena would most likely be met with shrill disapproval. She works as a dental assistant for Dr. Bob (Schwantz), whom she makes uncomfortable not only for her attempts to manage things she shouldn’t be managing but also for her perhaps inappropriate affections.
Danny (Leveck) is a successful band manager who makes a little extra by skimming off of his fledgling bands. When the accountant mom of one of them discovers his chicanery and proclaims he owes the band twenty grand, he flees Los Angeles for a family gathering at Christmas, one he has studiously refused to attend for years.
Edie (Keen) is the reason why Danny has stayed away. Overbearing, abusive and controlling, Danny (whom she calls “Dan-Dan”) is the apple of her eye; her other children (particularly Fanny) and her husband are merely worms in the apple. She screams at her family in a voice undoubtedly roughened by years of smoking, drinking and screaming at her kids. For Edie, her way is the only way – any other suggestions to the contrary can be shoved with all due haste where sunlight can’t be found.
Ronnie (Killingsworth) is a Vietnam vet who sometimes likes to look through his pictures of his years in the military that he keeps in a tin box in the shed. He is a bit broken, possibly afflicted with some mild dementia but remains kind-hearted despite constant bullying by his wife. Generally, he just tunes her out as much as possible.
Edie is preparing the “perfect” Christmas dinner – which is held a week before Christmas because the actual holiday itself stresses Edie out too much. Fanny’s candy factory is closing and the kindly owner (Darragh) has given Fanny a $9,000 severance check which she is supposed to deposit in the bank, but she misses her bus and arrives after the bank closes. Devastated by her loss, she goes to her sister’s house only to find Annie out. Todd instead feeds her a couple of beers (not the best idea for someone taking medication) and listens sympathetically to her story. Annie’s arrival, however, signals the end of any sympathy – Annie has a distinct lack of any compassion where her sister is concerned, possibly due to having to care for her for too long.
All this is going to come to a boil when the family arrives at the home where Edie rules. Annie will attempt to curry favor from Danny in direct competition with Edie (who doesn’t appreciate anyone coming between her and her son) and Ronnie will discover his wife’s ultimate cruelty – and Fanny will wash her hands of all of it.
This is the third feature of San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Chris Brown, who is also an accomplished songwriter and wrote the songs for the movie (including the oddball Christmas songs that Edie forced Danny to sing with her). Incidentally if you can find his album Now That You’re Fed and particularly the song “All My Rivals,” do go for it, the music is amazing.
He also wrote the script and collects a group of characters who pass through our gaze generally undetected when we see them on the streets but once you get to know them, you find them anything but bland. In that sense, they are very realistic – think of all the people you pass by without truly seeing them. We are all visible to the naked eye yet invisible to the gaze of others. Brown captures that aspect of our society very nicely and it adds to the realism of the film.
Pixley does some amazing work as Fanny to the point where you wonder if she might not have some of the issues she’s portraying. She’s that spot-on in her performance. Frangione also does an exceptional job, taking a character that is not necessarily sympathetic early on and in a matter of a minute or two makes him so. To Brown’s credit, he doesn’t write Todd as a Cheech and Chong clone but imbues the character with a personality that is more than a guy who smokes dope. Not all stoners are all about the dope.
The movie succeeds in painting a picture that is both funny and tragic. The children are all scarred by their mother’s behavior and while at times you want to punch Edie in the face, she is also ultimately a victim of her own behavior and if you look past the ugliness, you see someone who has been bitterly disappointed by life. The movie is compelling from the opening moments to the shocking last scene. It is not always easy to watch a family implode but Brown makes it funny and sad, like seeing a car full of clowns in a head-on collision with a semi.
REASONS TO GO: No matter how bad your family dynamics are, you’ll feel better about them after seeing this family. Organic performances and a clever script.
REASONS TO STAY: Mama Edie is such a horror show that people might actually cringe.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of foul language and a bit of drug use.
HOME OR THEATER: Look for it at a festival near you.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: More from the Florida Film Festival