Family Squares, 2022.
Directed by Stephanie Laing.
Starring Billy Magnussen, Judy Greer, Scott MacArthur, Sam Richardson, Ann Dowd, Margo Martindale, Casey Wilson, Henry Winkler, June Squibb, Elsie Fisher, Timothy Simons, Zoe Chao, Jessica Miesel, Maclaren Laing, and Rob Reiner.
The Worth family has been divided for years but when the matriarch, grandma Mabel dies suddenly, the family has to come together.
Not that it’s a silver lining necessarily worth having, but if there are a few, one of them is the unique approach filmmakers have to take when it comes to shooting stories centered on the pre-vaccine pandemic. With that said, co-writer and director Stephanie Laing (writing alongside Brad Morris) are fully committed to that twist as Family Squares takes a look at a dysfunctional family isolated from one another as they are forced to unite through Zoom and prepare for the natural death and subsequent funeral for grandma Mabel (June Squibb, the funniest member of the ensemble even while playing a dying character). Primarily presented through titular squares from video calls, it’s also interesting that the cast is credited as camera operators, with some ending credits footage driving home some of the originality behind this project.
Family Squares also boasts an impressive ensemble of familiar faces and rising stars, starting with Elsie Fisher’s Cassie giving grandma Mabel a brief tutorial on using Zoom. In her 90s, the woman naturally doesn’t have much of a clue for modern technology, although it’s not treated as a lame excuse for lazy jokes. It simply needs to be done, considering the family can’t gather in person. Shortly after, we are introduced to an assortment of family members ranging from sons and daughters to grandchildren and siblings and a wife, of course, in a chaotic fashion that most are probably used to by now from their own pandemic experiences.
Casting truly is the most crucial element to Family Squares, as considering it’s a 90-minute movie with most of its characters distanced from one another, there’s not much room to develop them or pace their arcs. Instead, it comes down to the talent on hand to breathe life into these personalities, which is effectively accomplished whether it’s the warm and sincere grace of Ann Dowd, the stressed-out humor from Judy Greer, comedic treasures such as Henry Winkler, or Timothy Simons trying to rekindle a connection with his daughter Cassie, who has already lost her mother. It’s also slightly surprising that the story isn’t entirely centered on Cassie to further elaborate on the theme of death and moving on, or the grieving widow and what the relationship was like, which would further flesh out Mabel by association. There’s an attempt to give everyone here a story, clogging other aspects up.
A posthumous video from Mabel drops one nuke after another on the family, throwing their most guarded secrets out into the open. Still, there’s a feeling that the script is trying to make these revelations a bit too wacky and outrageous as a means to cover up how thinly sketched the overall plot and characters are. As a result, the relatability that the story is going for winds up diminished. Simultaneously, there are some funny moments elevated by the delightful chemistry all of these underappreciated actors find with one another.
Much of Family Squares ultimately leads to a generic message about the importance of maintaining a connection with family, which is undoubtedly a timely statement given current events, but it’s executed a bit too sentimental. Every moment that does feel honest is offset by one that feels unearned and cloying. It’s a whole mixed bag of ideas and jokes, but primarily shooting over Zoom for an authentic feel of shouting over each other through messy finally dynamics and a terrific ensemble are enough to keep one tuned in and engaged into the entire block of squares. There is a definite lack of focus and uncertainty here (it’s practically begging for either Elsie Fisher or Ann Dowd to be given a more meaningful arc), but the ensemble finds several emotional truths alongside dysfunctional filmmaking as much as it is observing a dysfunctional family.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com