“You don’t belong around children. You belong at an airport wine bar,” someone tells Kate (Taylor Schilling) some time in “Family,” a rare moment in Laura Steinel’s shrewd comedy in which she’s being sized up rather than the other way around. The VP at a financial firm that handles hedge funds is an analyst for a living, treating people with the same chilly calculation as she’d treat a typical data set, speaking about a pregnant colleague as unlikely to continue making strides in her career after giving birth at her baby shower and denying her secretary’s request to leave a few hours early to have dinner with her brother because she doesn’t like the restaurant. However, never having taken time away from work herself, she’s put in a bind when asked by her brother Joe (Eric Edelstein) to look after her niece Maddie (a winning Bryn Vale) while he and his wife Cheryl (Alison Tolman) have to tend to her mom, immediately saying no before being guilted into what’s supposed to be one night of babysitting.
Of course, Joe and Cheryl’s trip lasts longer than expected, but keeping in the spirit of Steinel’s delightfully topsy-turvy sensibilities, the unexpected week-long stretch is just about the only thing you might expect of “Family,” which has the audacity to set its big comic finale at the infamous Gathering of the Juggalos – for fans of the Insane Clown Posse, for the uninitiated – and manages to earn every second of it and then some. You know this is where things will end from the opening moment of the film with Kate in full black-and-white Juggalo makeup, scrambling around the Faygo-swigging masses in a panic, but in an indication of things to come, the easy visual gag turns into something far more complex and even poignant by the time Steinel returns to it, as Kate’s defenses wear down in taking care of the 11-year-old Maddie.
Bonding over their shared hatred of middle school bullies over plates of chicken parm, Kate comes to offer cold comfort to Maddie that “Losers kids often become very successful people,” citing herself as an example, and to go by the standards set by her peers and even her parents, Maddie is quite the loser, imagining herself as a wolf in fantasy roleplay and sneaking into a Tae Kwon Do class when her mom drops her off at ballet lessons next door. However, it is an adherence to standards that begins to look suspect in “Family,” as Kate begins to flout the rules set out by Maddie’s parents for her to follow and starts to see Maddie flourish, with the young girl standing up for herself at school with her karate skills and befriending an Insane Clown Posse-loving Kwik Mart employee, and while confidence hasn’t been an issue of Kate’s for awhile, the need to question the playbook she followed chapter and verse to get to where she is becomes necessary.
That this is communicated so deftly inside of a raucous comedy is no small feat, but then again, Steinel’s own disdain for conventions make her feature debut especially distinctive, having as much fun with whip-pans of the camera and Shaw Brothers-style abrupt closeups for visual punchlines as strong as the verbal ones. She’s aided by a murderer’s row of comic supporting actors, from the likes of Kate McKinnon, Matt Walsh and “Atlanta”‘s Bryan Tyree Henry as well as discoveries such as Blair Beeken as Kate’s put-upon secretary or Fabrizio Guido as the convenience store clerk/juggalo who lures Maddie to the Gathering. But the film belongs to Schilling, who attacks Kate with a constantly surprising wild-eyed gusto that makes her eventual appearance at an Insane Clown Posse feel just right. In bringing together a variety of tones and ideas that one wouldn’t necessarily think would go together, she and Steinel make a beautiful film about creating the community around you and living by your own definition of success, though by any measure, “Family” is nothing short of a complete delight.
“Family” will play at SXSW on March 12 at 2:15 pm at the Alamo Lamar B and March 15 at 11:30 am at the Alamo Lamar E.