Family secrets on the big screen

Back in 1995, my sister visited me in Denmark. Little did we know. One leisurely outing at the Palads cinema started a lifelong obsession with films. Especially movies with an element of family intrigue. That afternoon we chose to see something we knew nothing about: Muriel’s Wedding. We hit the jackpot! Abba’s Dancing Queen and the quotes: ”You’re terrible, Muriel” and ” Deidre Chambers, what a coincidence”, still take me back to that day in Copenhagen.

Along came Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies. It was a wonderfully realistic tough-love type of analysis of British life. An adopted black woman traced her birth mother to a white woman. The older lady denied it, but little by little, everybody’s secrets and lies got exposed. ”This is the life, innit sweethearts? ”

Then there was the very strange Magnolia. This one took relationship intrigue to a whole new level. How people searched for happiness, forgiveness and meaning in their lives. The movie also introduced me to Aimee Mann, who instantly became one of my favourite artists.

Next were two films about families in cultural intrigue. Kids rejecting their parents’ traditional views and rules on dress, marriage, food and living in general. The British East Is East and the Swedish Jalla! Jalla! were both brilliant accounts of families dealing with racial culture clashes.

I found myself being pulled towards Scandinavian films. The Swedish Tillsammas (Together) was about living in a hippie commune in suburban Stockholm in the 70’s. The Norwegian Elling told the story of a sheltered autistic man in his 40’s struggling to function after the death of his dear mother. There was both drama and comedy in these stories.

I guess The Hours also falls into the family intrigue theme. A fair bit darker than the others so far. This was pure drama. Not just one but three plots – actually three generations – to follow. Afterwards, I rushed to a book store to buy Virgina Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.

Moving onto something entirely different was an American comedy, Napoleon Dynamite. This film about Napoleon’s bizarre household never even made it to the cinema in Finland, but it had a cult following in the US – Vote for Pedro. Give the movie a chance! Napoleon’s elaborate dance routine to Canned Heat by Jamiroquai may just win you over. Or Tina the llama.

What about Little Miss Sunshine? I loved it. A prime example of the family secrets genre. In the film, a dysfunctional family embarks on a cross-country road trip in their antiquated VW bus to fulfill the youngest daughter’s dream. Yes, there’s a happy ending.

And then there was Juno. A charming art-house comedy-drama about a very atypical 16-year old faced with an unplanned pregnancy and the subsequent pressures of grown-up responsibilities. I was really fond of the quiet, inimitable style of the film.

After these two essentially cheerful films, I was shocked but intrigued by Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Another story of people aspring to be happy, but it is safe to say that it’s more than a little disturbing at times. Definitely not for all tastes! However, with its matrix of intricate secrets and lies, the film’s definitely a contender in my family secrets genre. I later realised that Solondz’s films are all very controversial and provocative.

Another two dark films followed: Precious was a movie about the upsetting life of an abused Harlem teenager. I’m happy I saw it but it’s not a film I’d like to see again. The same applies to the Swedish Svinalängorna (Beyond). Noomi Rapace featured a girl growing up in a home filled with heavy drinking and suffering the dire, shameful consequences of alcoholism.

The melancholy Scandinavian stretch continued with the Danish Hævnen. The Danish title was The Revenge. For for some odd reason the name of the film internationally was In A Better World. This was Susanne Bier’s intimate psychological drama about two families. Fathers and sons specifically. About revenge and redemption, sorrow, upbringing and friendship. Despite its layers of violence, another must see!

Let’s move onto the scene of British family intrigue once more. Another Year portrayed the four seasons of an average year of a happily married couple. How they dealt with the misfortunes of their circle of friends and family. This Mike Leigh movie again represented something utterly British to me. A mixture of humour and irony. A life where everything and anything can be resolved with a cup of tea or some alcohol.

Like one of my all time favourites, Sideways, Alexander Payne’s next film The Descendants was simple and real. Yet it managed to describe a tragic and heartfelt family drama. With secrets, of course. All set against a backdrop of modern Hawaii.

My latest family intrigue film appeared completely out of the blue. Judging from the posters, I thought I was going to see something Psycho like, but Hitchcock was more like a love story. And like Muriel’s Wedding all those years ago, I saw the film with my sister.



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