Holidays are coming around again, and this year, we have no excuses. For many, one of the (very) few upsides of the pandemic was that it provided a solid excuse to avoid toxic family holiday gatherings — and if a reluctance to spend time with your relatives is entirely alien to you, congratulations.
If some of us who experienced more fraught upbringings don’t approach family gathering season with unalloyed joy, perhaps we can be forgiven. And if we like to watch movies about broken families instead of spending time with our own, well, maybe that’s OK too. Sometimes they remind us that we’re not alone; sometimes, it’s nice to remember that things could be worse.
What makes a dysfunctional family, you ask? The families in these films have problems: dramatized and sometimes exaggerated to make for a good film. They aren’t bad or broken beyond repair, necessarily; as in real life, dysfunction can be a chronic condition that manifests from time to time (particularly during the holidays), or it can be terminal, and eventually rip a family apart. And also as in real life, sometimes dysfunction is hilarious.
Note: Most of these movies (even the funny ones) deal with issues that can be triggering for people with troubled family histories. If that’s you, I’d strongly suggest doing a bit of extra research — IMDb often offers keywords and content warnings — before diving in.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums works in large part because we can all relate to the feeling of having peaked too early; the sense that life will never quite deliver on its early promise (and if you can’t relate: well, good for you). As befitting a Wes Anderson movie, the Salinger-esque Tenenbaum siblings are all extreme examples of that idea — born into great wealth and identified early on as geniuses, not one of them has lived up to the tremendous pressure placed on them by their mother (Anjelica Huston) or by their circumstances. With every advantage, they’ve still failed, though the return of their long-estranged father (Gene Hackman, in one of his last, best film roles before he retired) forces them all to take fresh looks at their lives, suggesting that, often, disappointment is only a matter of perspective.
Where to stream: Disney+
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
The promise of a $US10,000 ($13,303) life insurance check sets the Younger family at odds in this 1961 classic starring Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier. Everyone has different ideas about what to do with the money, reflecting not only their own individual character and dreams, but also their competing visions about how much and how far a poor Black family could go in 1960s America. Though the film (as in the Lorraine Hansberry play on which its based) is about the conflict, it feels more as though we’re seeing a dysfunctional period in the lives of a close family that happens to be filled with strong-willed individuals.
Where to stream: ABC iview
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Not one of these people is particularly well-adjusted. Steve Carell’s frank is a suicidal Proust scholar; Paul Dano’s Steve has taken a vow of silence; Alan Arkin’s Edwin is a heroin-obsessed nursing home evictee; etc. A desperate cross-state trip to get Abigail Breslin’s Olive to a beauty pageant is a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that these diverse and damaged personalities have no business cramming themselves together in a van for two days. Sometimes, though, a common enemy in the outside world can be just the thing to bring a family together.
Where to stream: Disney+
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Much as in the TV series, the four New Zealand roommates who happen to be vampires — Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr, along with their circles of friends and familiars — represent an unlikely found family par excellence. As if the Golden Girls were immortal (I wish). Vampires have traditionally been solo creatures; here, Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement explore the weird, awkward, sometimes violent, and also charming things that happen when solitary creatures come together.
Where to stream: Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
There’s sexual violence within and around the Louisiana family at the heart of Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 directorial debut, so it’s well outside of the charmingly dysfunctional mode of some of these other films. After 10-year-old Eve (June Smollett) witnesses her well-respected father (Samuel L. Jackson) having sex with a family friend, he manages to convince his daughter that she imagined the whole thing, sparking themes of gaslighting as well as the unreliable nature of memory, and the ways in which both can shape a family. The light in the film is in the relationship between Eve and her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good), and the idea that individual familial relationships can grow stronger, even as a family falls apart.
Where to stream: Prime Video
Knives Out (2019)
It might be a bit of a spoiler to say this, given that the members of the Harlan Strombey’s extended family reveal themselves only gradually throughout the film, but they’re all pretty terrible. Passive aggressive, spoiled, backbiting, and mean-spirited…the only thing they have going for them is their money. If you don’t happen to be rich, Knives Out might just make you glad you aren’t. (Sort of. I’d still like to live in that house.)
Where to stream: Foxtel Go, Prime Video
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Unintentionally hilarious camp classic or searing portrait of childhood abuse? Maybe both? Though there are plenty of disagreements over the precise details of Christina Crawford’s portrait of her famous mother Joan (as a middle-aged gay man, let me tell you: this remains a popular topic of conversation 40 years later), we can certainly agree she probably wasn’t the best parental figure — and the movie makes a strong case that money alone isn’t necessarily the best qualifying criteria when it comes to adoption.
Where to stream: Apple Tv, Prime Video, Google Play
The Wedding Party (2016)
Big weddings are stressful AF — throw two families together for a complicated, expensive, and high-pressure event, and even the smallest internal issues are magnified. That’s also why the dysfunctional family wedding comedy is pretty much a genre in and of itself; there’s a reason we don’t see a lot of movies about weddings going smoothly. The tropes are familiar, and they’re all on display here: parents from different social classes with not much in common; fights over details; wacky uninvited guests, etc, but it’s all charmingly well-crafted, with a distinctively Nollywood look and feel.
Where to stream: Netflix
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Crazy Rich Asians dials many of the family wedding comedy tropes up to twenty: the groom’s family isn’t just richer than the bride’s, they’re richer than just about everybody on the planet. Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu comes from New York, a world apart from the more traditional (in a sense) Singapore upbringing of Nick Young (Henry Fielding). Rachel’s social status makes her instantly suspect, the mere facts of her life serving as proof she’s nothing but a gold-digger. Nick’s family is casually cruel in wielding their wealth and superiority — his mother’s similarly questionable background apparently not having taught her compassion.
Where to stream: Prime Video, Foxtel Go
The Birdcage (1996)
Secrets are so often at the root of dysfunction, and everything’s going well, more or less, for Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and their son Val (Dan Futterman) in this Hollywood remake of award-winning French comedy La Cage aux Folles — until they decide to put on an elaborate ruse for the sake of the deeply conservative parents of Val’s fiancee. Trust me, gays, going back into the closet is nothing but trouble. Unless it’s funny. (This time, it’s very funny.) A lot has changed in the 25 years since this movie was released, thankfully; hopefully, queer folx can feel more comfortable being themselves with their in-laws in 2021.
Where to stream: Stan
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
There’s a lot you could say about the Griswold family and their familial challenged over the course of the six-or-so (depending on which ones you’d care to count) Vacation movies, but suffice it to say: if you ever wake up on Christmas morning to find your cousin Randy Quaid emptying an RV full of shit in front of your house, your family has problems.
Where to stream: Prime Video, Apple TV
The Ice Storm (1997)
Ang Lee’s ‘70s-set The Ice Storm is surely one of the all-time great movies about Thanksgiving, provided you are cool with the fact that it’s a huge bummer. Outwardly, the Hoods look like a model family, but Kevin Kline is cheating on his wife, Joan Allen, with the neighbour Sigourney Weaver, while daughter Christina Ricci is trying to get something going on with Weaver’s son, Elijah Wood (this cast, amirite?). It all climaxes (pun slightly intended) in a very ‘70s key party that takes place during the titular weather event, which traps everyone in odd circumstances and forces them to face their issues, even though there are no easy answers.
Where to stream: Stan
The Lion in Winter (1968)
You think your family’s dysfunctional, or that family dysfunction, in general, is a modern phenomenon? Watch The Lion in Winter, based on the very true story of King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn). When Henry’s son, the future King Richard (Anthony Hopkins), and a couple of his brothers had revolted against the father years before, they’d been joined by Eleanor. At the movie’s outset, the family is reuniting for Christmas just in time for a dowry fight involving the family of Eleanor’s ex-husband and the woman with which Henry has been having an affair. What follows is two-plus hours of exquisitely written bickering.
Where to stream: YouTube Movies, Google Play
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Based on the semi-autobiographical play by Eugene O’Neill, one of the giants of the fucked-up family genre, this 1962 stage-to-screen adaptation has an incredible cast (Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Dean Stockwell), ensuring every veiled (and not-so-veiled) barb and passive-aggressive taunt lands perfectly. Over the course of a single day, four members of the Tyrone family hash out their problems (the men are all alcoholics, while Katherine Hepburn’s Mary is degenerating into psychosis following years of morphine abuse) in an increasing spiral of abuse and recrimination, leavened by sincere attempts to rebuild their relationships. It’s the worst family reunion imaginable — for them, anyway; watching it all go down is pretty great.
Raising Arizona (1987)
One of the Coen brothers earliest films, Raising Arizona remains, perhaps, the duo’s wildest. Nicholas Cage plays Hi McDunnough, a thoroughly incompetent robber who marries Holly Hunter’s Ed, a police officer. With the couple, having difficulty conceiving a child, Hi decides that a wealthy family with quintuplets has more than they need of just about everything, and so a kidnapping seems to be in order. As messed up as that is, it’s hard not to root for Ed and Hi and their wild hijinks — but the kind of love that justifies a kidnapping is, perhaps, a tiny bit unhealthy.
Where to stream: Disney+
The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Following years of estrangement, two siblings are brought together by mutual near-tragedy and mental health crises — reluctantly confronting their entire family history as well as the very real problems of the present. Despite the presence of SNL besties Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, this one is a lot darker and more complicated than you might think, so don’t go in expecting anything cutesy — it’s more a laughing-through-the-clinical-depression thing. (However, it does include one of my favourite spontaneous musical moments in a not-a-musical movie.)
Where to stream: Google Play, Apple TV
As we enter the holiday season, I’m afraid it must be said: profound religious revelations are not always a good thing. Not at all. Here, the late, great Bill Paxton (who also directed) gets a message from God ordering him to kill those who’ve been revealed to him as demons. What might be a more straightforward serial-killer narrative is complicated (and made even more disturbing) by the family dynamic involved: Paxton’s character has two sons — one whose love for his dad makes him a believer, and another who is horrified but doesn’t know how to stop what’s happening.
Setting aside, for a moment, everything the Kim family reveals to us about the state of modern capitalism in Korea and around the world…there’s some rather poor decision-making going on here. The ride-or-die closeness of the family would be charming in another context, and their willingness to support each other is admirable. Unfortunately, the end result something less than desirable.
Where to stream: Stan
Almost Christmas (2016)
If we’re to believe the ads, it is almost Christmas (I don’t believe the ads, but here we are), and it’s certainly the case that mid-winter gatherings of any faith tradition can be particularly fraught. This one’s on the more charming end of the bickering-family holiday comedy genre, but there are still issues of drug addiction, infidelity, and divorce in play, all complicated by the presence of free-spoken Aunt May (Mo’Nique). There’s one at every family table.
Where to stream: Apple TV
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Force Awakens (2015)
Luke’s got a wee crush on his sister which, in any other family, would be more than enough to make for an awkward Thanksgiving. Luckily for him, dad’s a genocidal fascist with a penchant for youngling murder — so nobody really even talks about that time he kissed Leia just to make his best friend jealous. Leia, on a similar note, has everything going for her until her own son misses the point of all the previous movies and decides to get into the mass murder business himself…in part because he was neglected by his dad and disappointed by his uncle Luke.
It’s all extremely messy, is the point.
Where to stream: Disney+
Ordinary People (1980)
Following back-to-back family tragedies, a teenager attempts to reconnect with his increasingly withdrawn and narcissistic mother and his deeply anguished father. Fun. Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, works in that it never takes the easy route: it’s not a satire, nor even particularly the critique white suburban repression that you might expect. Instead, it’s an understated study of the ways in which a family can sometimes magnify rather than soothe our problems.
Where to stream: Google Play, Apple TV, YouTube Movies