Perfect Family, The

Mother Knows Best

Main Cast: Kathleen Turner, Emily Deschanel, Jason Ritter

Director: Anne Renton

Living in a seemingly hopelessly polarized country has made me jaded and cynical.  I imagined that there did not exist a movie that tackled subjects like homosexuality and religion without judging, preaching or pushing an agenda.  I couldn’t be happier to report that I was wrong.  The Perfect Family managed to penetrate even my hardened shell of skepticism with its genuine, gentle and occasionally funny look at what happens when religion collides with a reality that contradicts its every teaching.

Kathleen Turner stars as Eileen, a devout Roman Catholic mother of two who spends most of her free time doing good works for the church.  She’s reliable, trustworthy, devoted and kind – she practices what she preaches and lives an almost fanatically faithful life.  She is also rigid and anxious and has managed to push her husband and grown children away with her fervent demands that they live within the bounds of church doctrine.

As we enter her story, she has been nominated by her priest for the prestigious Catholic Woman of the Year award.  She has competition in the form of Sharon Lawrence, playing a broadly drawn sort of villain – someone who does plenty for the church, but for all the wrong reasons and without a glimmer of true charity in her soul.

The real reason Eileen wants to win this award is not for the accolades, but for the prize – absolution of her sins by a bishop.  She goes to confession religiously (pun fully intended) yet seems to be desperate for the full absolution that can only be granted by a higher church power.  The contest includes home visits and interviews and Eileen is apoplectic as she tries to reshape her home, family and life to look as perfectly Catholic as is humanly possible.  We know this isn’t going to go well.

The set-up seems trite and an easy vehicle for moralizing in one form or another.  But rather than getting preached at by director Anne Renton and writers Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley, we see something quite different.  There are no real villains here – Sharon Lawrence is really just a comic semi-villain – on either side of the political or religious fence.  Eileen is a good person, so are her homosexual daughter, ex-alcoholic husband and soon-to-be divorced son.  They all have flaws but none is demonized for the things they believe.  They are simply a group of people trying to cope with their own particular hardships, prejudices and ultimately their desire to be a family.

The linchpin of the cast is definitely Kathleen Turner.  Remember her in Body Heat?    Yeah, she isn’t like that anymore.  She turns in a beautiful performance as a tortured soul with secrets and desperate hopes for her family.  Supporting her are Emily Deschanel from Bones as daughter Shannon, Michael McGrady as husband Frank and Jason Ritter as son Frank, Jr.  McGrady in particular does a terrific job as a gentle man who tries to calm his frantic wife as she faces the realities of her less than perfect situation while at the same time desperately wanting to win the contest that she sees as a chance to save her soul.  They manage a strange but touching balance as a couple.

The Perfect Family is an excellent reminder that real people are not sound bites.  Based on outward appearances every member of this family would be politically pigeonholed – and each one would be completely or partially incorrect.  Strong performances, an alternately funny and poignant script and very well drawn characters make The Perfect Family perfect election year viewing.  4 stars out of 5.

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