Sometimes a performance can carry a film and make it work despite an average screenplay. It takes a talented actor or actress to make this happen, but when it does, it becomes a testament to their ability to carry a film all by themselves, which is that rare thing that producers in this industry always look for.
“Family,” which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival last year, was directed by Laura Steinel and is the sort of makeshift family romp that could only work if its lead character is interesting enough to be followed all the way through. That's the case here, as "Family," tackling everyday working-class America's struggles to cope with mixing business and relationships, stars the-always-wonderful Taylor Schilling as a self-centered workaholic tasked with taking care of her eccentric outcast of an 11-year-old niece for a week.
Schilling plays the uptight executive Kate Stone, hated by all her co-workers, mostly because, in her words, "I say what others are thinking but won’t say out loud." She even has the chutzpah, in an early scene, to tell her pregnant colleague, at her baby shower no less, that she will probably not need her services anymore post-maternity leave. Despite all that, Stone is still very much a "likable" character in the sense that you understand her, she is just socially awkward and quite vocally open about how dull and uninspiring her life is in terms of relationships and friendships.
The plot kicks into high gear when Kate receives a call from her brother asking her to take care of his daughter, Kate’s niece Maddie (Bryn Vale). Kate does not like kids, but with her brother and sister-in-law having to attend an out-of-town family emergency, she inevitably agrees and moves into his house for a few days. Of course, as with all makeshift family movies, she and Maddie end up bonding, as Maddie opens up about how she wishes her parents would let her do karate instead of ballet, and how she's been repeatedly bullied in school. Kate's insistence for Maddie to blossom into adulthood has gotten her to start opening up, as she befriends a kid named Baby Joker at the local 7/11, and the two fast become friends. Baby Joker is a Juggalo, which is, in the simplest of terms, a fan of the band Insane Clown Posse. Maddie is intrigued and starts to follow Baby Joker around, eventually ending up at a Clown Posse concert herself.
“Family,” of course, does not break any new ground, barely using any kind of stylistic and narrative risks, however, what it does have going for it is an abundance of interesting characters. It is also rather well paced and tries to avoid clichés or manipulative sentiments at every turn, which makes it more enjoyable than it should have ever been. This is an amiable debut for Laura Steinel, whose character study is about an unhappy woman who discovers a better path to connecting with others through her free-spirited niece. A rather safe premise that is energized by the high-wire acting of its talented lead actress.
And so, a never-better Schilling, of "Orange is the New Black" fame, owns the film from beginning to end, and her performance is enough to make you wonder why she hasn't been cast in this kind of star vehicle until now. The balance she brings between drama and comedy is, frankly, impressive. Sure, she was in the 2014 indie comedy “The Overnight,” but that film barely took advantage of her infectious charisma as Steinhel does here. Steinel's by-the-books approach to the storytelling and an over-reliance on the conventional plot can sometimes do a disservice to the movie, but Schilling's Kate is such a compelling character that the flaws do not matter -- as long as she is onscreen, she has our attention.
Showing a surprising gift for the kind of deadpan hilarity that only a truly talented comedian can deliver on-screen, Schilling is the reason to watch "Family," a movie that will not break any new cinematic ground, but is, nevertheless, a fun, rambunctiously delightful time at the movies and could be, fingers crossed, the start of an impressive movie career by an actress that deserves more attention than she's getting. [B-]