Surviving Family (2012) – By Philip Smolen

Twenty four year-old Terry (Sarah Wilson) has left her home in California and come back to New Jersey with her fiancé Alex (Billy Magnussen) to get married. She dreads returning (she hasn’t been back in two years) because she will have to deal with her broken family. On Terry’s 13th birthday (which happens to be on the 4th of July) her mother committed suicide, and she has suffered with nightmares since that day. She blames her mother’s death (and all of her family’s problems) on her father (Bill Sage) and his alcoholism and extramarital affairs. At her father’s house, she is met by her older sister Jean (Tara Westwood) and another woman, Helen (Sophia Parra), and is shocked to learn that Helen is her half sister. She also recounts to Alex the whereabouts of her alcoholic brother Hank (Johnny Hopkins). As the couple prepares for their special day, Jean is determined that her sister learn the truth about her mother’s condition, so she takes Terry to see her Aunt Mary (Phyllis Somerville). Meanwhile, Terry begins to wonder if she’ll ever be able to escape the all the emotional problems created by her family.

“Surviving Family” is a great film: sincere, moving, and heartfelt. Films about fractured families can sometimes resort to ridiculous situations, lapses in logic, and shrill overacting. But director Laura Thies and screenwriter/producer Mara Lesemann ground the film, and the situations arise organically from one another. We are swept along on Terry’s journey of discovery. Thies peels back the layers until we can see the real tragedy and horrific cost of mental illness.

One of the great delights in the film is seeing how this wounded family comes together to make sure that Terry and Alex have a fantastic wedding. Jean is fiercely protective. She knows the entire situation of her mother’s death and sees some similarities in her own daughter Lily (Katherine C. Hughes). She also knows that Terry totally blames her father and that the time has come to share the truth. But she also surrounds Terry with the love and security that her sister needs to begin to deal with this reality. It is Jean and the rest of the family that help Terry start the healing process.
“Surviving Family” features a wonderful ensemble cast. Sara Wilson is marvelous as the injured Terry. She’s stiff and awkward when she first arrives in New Jersey, clearly uncomfortable to be reunited with her family. But as she begins to understand the entire situation, she becomes warm, loving and giving to them. Tara Westwood displays real feistiness and depth as Jean. She’s complicated, intense and fearless. Kudos must also go to Billy Magnussen as Terry’s fiancé Alex and Johnny Hopkins who plays Terry’s alcoholic brother, Hank. They put in brave, nuanced performances. But the scene stealer in the movie is Phyllis Somerville as Terry’s free-spirited Aunt Mary. She’s a total delight and gives her scene just the right amount of sass.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the film is that there are very few film clichés, merely an honest look at a splintered family unit. While there are a couple of technical issues that mar the film (including some confusing flashbacks), they do not damage what remains a distinctive cinematic experience. “Surviving Family” is a human drama that reaches deep and touches the soul. It is an eloquent and powerful film.

For more information on “Surviving Family” please visit these sites: http://www.survivingfamily.us and http://www.nj.com/jjournal-news/index.ssf/2012/01/jersey_city_filmmakers_movie_o.html