By G. Michael Dobbs
On paper, "The Perfect Family" sounds like an extended "Saturday Night Live" sketch: a very observant Catholic woman is notified that she has been nominated for "Catholic Woman of the Year," but her secret is her less-than-Catholic family consisting of an alcoholic husband, philandering son and pregnant lesbian daughter.
Director Anne Renton's drama with comedy is very far removed from any "Church Lady" bit, though.
Kathleen Turner plays Eileen Cleary, a good-hearted woman who goes to Mass daily, volunteers for parish activities and truly has devoted a large part of her life to the church. By doing this, she has put on some very tinted glasses when it comes to her family.
She refuses to acknowledge that her single daughter is in a happy relationship with another woman. The announcement that she is pregnant is barely comprehensible to her.
Eileen won't accept the news that her son isn't happy in his marriage and still hasn't forgiven her husband for his many years as a drunk, despite the fact he has long been sober.
Eileen manages to keep these family secrets from the eyes of her fellow parishioners and her monsignor (played by Richard Chamberlain). Her nomination threatens to unravel her potential triumph, as part of the award process is a meeting between her family and the bishop.
With a different director, this film could have been very different and not a very effective movie. Renton, though, clearly wanted to go beyond stereotype and tell a story that deals with real life. This balanced approach makes the moments of comedy much richer.
At the core of the film is the subject of faith faith not only in the religious sense, but the faith members of a family exhibit in one another.
Turner does some of her best work in years in this film. It would be very easy to make Eileen a parody and to ridicule her faith for easy laughs. Between the script and direction, though, we understand why Eileen believes so strongly in her religious life.
Eileen is a likable person and in many ways it's easy to understand how she has used her faith to cope with her often-tumultuous life. What Turner's performance and the film as a whole is all about is how Eileen revises her view of both faith and family.
A great cast supports Turner in this film. Emily Deschanel plays the daughter who clearly loves her mother, but is losing patience with her lack of acceptance. Both Jason Ritter as her son and Michael McGrady as her husband strike the right note. Chamberlain should be on the screen more in my opinion.
In this era of big budget blockbusters with 3-D, I welcome the very human story "The Perfect Family." It will be playing as part of the Out! For Reel Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Film Series at 7 p.m. on May 5 at Northampton High School, 380 Elm St. For ticket information, log onto www.outforreel.org.
Pick up this month's PRIME, to read an interview with director Anne Renton.
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