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LAFF Review: ‘You Can Choose Your Family’ struggles to conjure sympathy with horrible central characters

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer


Recently, nostalgia for the 1990s and early 2000s has grown more prominent in TV and film as the teens of that era have grown up to start writing and directing. Within the last year, films like: Lady Bird, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Summer 03 have each explored the prominent eraEach is set in the early 2000s, comes from women writer-directors, and deals with the coming of age of teen girl protagonists. Jonah Hill’s take on the nostalgia of his childhood in Mid90s is soon to hit theaters, though it garnered a mixed reception thus far. Now we have director Miranda Bailey taking on the 90s, but perhaps in choosing to direct a script not written by herself, there is not much of a feeling of a personal connection to either the era or the characters.

Producer of two of the best and most interesting films of recent years; Diary of a Teenage Girl and Swiss Army Man, Miranda Bailey finally makes her narrative feature film directing debut. At the film’s LA Film Festival, West Coast premiere, CC2K asked Miranda Bailey the transition from producing to directing:

Producing is a thankless job where you have to do a lot of babysitting, a lot of arguing and directing is a job where you’re given a large task and people respect you and you have the choice to maintain their respect or lose it. If you fuck up when you’re directing, you don’t get another shot and if you fuck up when you’re producing, you get a million.

We asked Bailey if the experience of working on Diary of a Teenage Girl and Swiss Army Man inspired her when it came time for her to direct:

Of course! I’ve always kind of known that I would eventually direct, I just didn’t realize when or how. It wasn’t something I always wanted, I just kind of knew it would probably happen because I started as an actress, then I became a producer and from that, the next step that was the most logical was directing because you work so much with both of those departments. I had a leg up, in a way, because I knew how to talk ‘producer language’, what producers needed and wanted and the same thing with the actors – I knew what they needed and wanted. So I feel that having that knowledge really made this a lot more fun than it probably would with someone else who maybe didn’t have those experiences.

We finally asked Bailey what drew her to Glen Lakin’s script in particular; “I have a lot of Daddy issues! And so this was my way of working them out, honestly.”

You Can Choose Your Family follows Philip’s (Logan Miller) discovery that his father Frank (stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan) has a secret second family. It also stars Anna Gunn and Samantha Mathis as the two wives and Alex Karpovsky as a stoner who finds himself embroiled in the shenanigans. Unfortunately a strong cast cannot save this poorly written film from itself. Fundamentally, this movie tries to garner sympathy and understanding for a man who does something despicable and it just doesn’t work – there is not enough in the writing or characterization to win the audience over. The humor is also not strong enough to carry it through and hold the attention of the viewer for what amounts to a substantial run-time.

You Can Choose Your Family is inexplicably set in 1992 and uses this in the marketing as a selling-point: “The year grunge music becomes mainstream hitting middle American teenagers directly in their angst”. However, the film doesn’t bring any authentic connection to our affection for this era and it seems a pointless waste setting it in this time period. The only advantage is the lack of contemporary technology and social media makes the feat of maintaining two separate families and keeping them secret more believable. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t use any of the music of the era and the costumes are barely evocative of that time. If you were a teenager and into grunge in the 1990s, this is not a film to relive your childhood. You’re better off revisiting Cameron Crowe’s Singles instead.

Logan Miller is quickly making a name for himself by starring in some quality teen films such as Before I Fall and Love, Simon, although at 26, he is now playing almost a decade younger than he actually is. Miller creates a sympathetic character here who makes unbelievable choices when faced with a father who treats him extremely poorly.

It would be one thing if Frank simply had two families, but he treats the children in one family completely different from the other. To compound matters, he leverages the children against one other – so with Philip, he pretends he has a best friend who is the father of Eddie and Kelly (who are, in fact, his half-siblings) and keeps berating Philip by saying “why can’t you be more like them?”. This is the situation that Philip discovers and this is supposed to be a situation that he can forgive – it is just not realistic that he should or that he would and it ends up enraging the audience on Philip’s behalf.

Meanwhile, Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) and Samantha Mathis (star of ’90s favorites Pump Up the Volume, Little Women and Jack & Sarah) deserve better than their roles here. The story shows difficulty in crafting why these two women would remain married to Gaffigan’s Frank, who even without the two-family issue is not a great husband or father.

Finally, Daniel Rashid plays Philip’s best friend Lewis and Isabelle Phillips plays his sister Kelly – both of these young actors do a good job and show potential. Alex Karpovsky portrays Lewis’ uncle and although he also embodies a flawed character in Girls, at least that character is complex and nuanced. His character here is merely a caricature of a stoner here and his presence becomes increasingly irritating as the story progresses. Jim Gaffigan’s performance cannot do enough to redeem the character of Frank and it becomes rage-inducing that we are supposed to feel any affection for a character who treats everyone, but particularly Philip so badly.

For a comedy, You Can Choose Your Family does not feel as well-paced or zingy as it should and really drags in the second half. Bailey mentioned she is still working on the editing and is using festivals as a ‘testing ground’ for the film, so it may still advisedly cut its runtime before general release. However, the central concept and the script is ultimately at fault, so this is one to avoid.

 

Rating: 2 Stars out of 5

Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for jumpcutonline.com, moviejawn.com and others.

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