L Movie Review 2Movies tend to maximalize everything — spectacle, exposition, emoting, violence — so you might be startled by the lick-the-battery charge of a film like Lucy Kerr’s Family Portrait, which carves out a wholly liminal semi-narrative experience. It’s there in the first shot: We’re on the sunny lawn of a vacation home as a busy clan of adults and kids attempts to get organized for a family Christmas photo and fails, like kittens trying to herd themselves. It’s all 100% natural and convincing and chaotic, and Kerr’s camera surveys steadily, with the hold-your-breath confidence of Lucrecia Martel or the Dardenne brothers, letting whatever or whoever falls out of frame stay there. No one family member is made central to us, and the soundtrack rumbles with subterranean menace.

Talk about leaning in — Kerr’s pocket-size debut points a silent j’accuse at most contemporary filmmakers, who commonly believe we need omniscience and emphasis in every movie meal. Watching Family Portrait is more like overhearing intimate conversations and free-associating the stories behind them — you become active, not glutted on sensation. (It reminded me of Tyler Taormina’s films Ham on Rye, 2019, and Happer’s Comet, 2022 — and then, there was his name, thanked in the closing credits.) Kerr embraces lyrical fragmentation: a kid disappearing inside a giant hollow tree, someone anxiously studying chemistry in a hammock, a woman eating ice cream on a lawn chair, a caterpillar heading toward a sleeper in the grass. Gradually, the family emerges: four grown Texan sisters, two with broods of children (the infants and toddlers ensure that their scenes are unrehearsed and vulnerable to calamity); a commanding older mother and father (Silvana Jakich and Robert Salas); and the requisite husbands and boyfriends.

Slowly, the youngest sister, Katy (Deragh Campbell), emerges as our priority, anxious about a number of things — not making her flight home, for starters, but also about the Christmas photo her Polish boyfriend is supposed to take amid the family’s un-corralable whorl, and about the fact that, at some unseen point, her mother has vanished. Amid gossipy talk about a distant cousin’s sudden death and the family legacy behind a famous and commonly misrepresented WWII photograph (the dishonesty of images! — like Christmas photos and even film frames), Katy grows increasingly agitated at everyone’s disregard for order and time, as she hunts for the matriarch no one else seems concerned about. And then time — movie time — begins to slip out of line too. There’s no clear line between subjective and objective; we’re given impressions and time leaps without context. An unmoving, master-shot scene inside the house swallows three simultaneous conversations at once, forcing us to try to choose; Ozu-esque cutaways to trees in the sun dare us to wonder about the minutes passing in off-screen space. With each irrational shot and cut (two sisters sitting on a rock in a river are reprised later by two turkey buzzards in the same spot), Kerr sticks our feet into the same mysterious mud Katy’s in, as if we’re sharing the same bad dream.

What Kerr does here feels both simple and sublime: Her elliptical attitude toward both narrative progression and the film’s unpredictable visual choices converts everything into freestanding metaphor. The untaken photograph, the missing mother, the sisters’ self-involved obliviousness, the haphazardly seen house, Katy’s in-between post-adolescence and sense of lostness, the roiling and entropic nature of families — everything the film gives you to think about reverberates with echoes of disconnection and dread, of anxiety over family secrets, and of the neurotic desire for order and stillness, for time to just stop and let us be. Or, Rorschach-ishly, something else? You choose your own creeping existential disquiet. Just walking across a lawn alone seems to exude thematic resonance.

Not that we’re seeing a by-now-clichéd dissection of a family unit’s dissolution — there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly dysfunctional about these people, they’re merely subject to the same forces of decay and tension and uncertainty we all are. Only a nudge over an hour long, Kerr’s film climaxes with a grand dream-logic flourish, a three-plus-minute oscillating tracking shot, as maybe-sleepwalking Katy returns from her search in the wilderness, dripping wet, and catatonically tries to set up the fabled photo shoot again, getting lost in the family’s cyclical comings and goings. With a soundtrack that rises and falls in an ambient bolero of distorted machine noise, and acting that can bronze-cast a character with just a glance (with so little at her disposal, Campbell is eye-glue), it’s the alchemical little movie that could, and one of the year’s best.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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