SXSW 2024 Review: FAMILY, Ruth Wilson Gives The Performance Of A Lifetime In This Heart-breaking Horror

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
SXSW 2024 Review: FAMILY, Ruth Wilson Gives The Performance Of A Lifetime In This Heart-breaking Horror

A little girl with a dying father reaches out to the heavens for a spirit to protect her family, but what reaches back has other ideas in Benjamin Finkel’s SXSW Midnighters selection, Family.

Having just moved across the country in an attempt to find new treatments for her father’s worsening cancer, young Johanna (Cameron Dawson Gray) has to start all over in a new place, and that’s tough. It certainly doesn’t help that her dad, Harry (Ben Chaplin) needs constant care and her mother Naomi (Ruth Wilson) is so beaten down by having to shoulder all of the family’s needs that their daughter is often the last priority.

Johanna’s only solace is a little blue birdhouse, to which she believes she can lure a kind spirit to look after her family and make her father well again. Mother doesn’t agree, thinking it is dangerous to get her daughter’s hopes up, but Dad sees it as one thing that can make his daughter happy, those gifts are few these days. Harry helps her hang the birdhouse and Johanna makes a call to the cosmos, but the answer she receives is not the one she’s looking for, and very soon their troubles multiply, leading to a violent fight with the inevitability of death.

First time filmmaker Benjamin Finkel brings some heavy, heavy emotions to his debut feature. Family comes from his own youth living with a cancer-stricken father and an attempt to externalize the feelings that consumed him. There is an overwhelming sense of helplessness that permeates Family, Johanna fights a seemingly unwinnable fight, all while her father tries to pretend that nothing is wrong and her mother just tries to save a bit of her own sanity in a world that seems set against her.

There’s growing tension between mother and daughter, a sense from Johanna that her mother has given up and isn’t even allowing for hope to exist in her world while Naomi feels that her Johanna doesn’t care about the challenges facing the family, but neither able or willing to see the other’s point of view. It’s a gut-wrenching battle, with everyone in this house experiencing a real-time living grief, Johanna hoping for a miracle and Naomi waiting for the end. In the middle is a frail Harry, attempting to keep the light in his daughter’s eyes alive while his own dims.

While this internal family drama rages, there is an outside cosmic force that seems determines to hasten the process of death, being called to the birdhouse that seems to have nefarious designs on the family. It eats away at them, first taking little things, and then their sanities and agency away from them, leaving them nothing but pain. We don’t see much of the being at first, only its effects, but when it does finally confront the family, it’s every bit as terrifying as you might expect.

Gray and Chaplin turn in fantastic performances, but around the forty-five-minute mark, Family turns into the Ruth Wilson show. In the pantheon of unhinged motherly performances in horror films, there are numerous luminaries from Toni Collette in Hereditary to the more recent addition of Lizzy Caplan in Cobweb, and it is time to etch another name in that plaque. Wilson’s performance is one for the books, she fully gives in to the mania being suffered by Naomi at the being’s hands. It’s absolutely wild, and easily the best part of an already excellent film. Over the top doesn’t begin to describe the pitch of the performance, but thanks to Finkel’s confident hand behind the camera it never feels out of place.

Quite simply one of SXSW’s horror highlights for me, Family is an inside look at the oppression of inevitability and the ways in which we attempt to cope with loss alone. Finkel takes his lived experience and imparts it to the audience in a way that is relatable and terrifying. There is a deep emotional resonance to Family that allows it to connect and convey the terror and sadness of loss that betrays the fact that this is Finkel’s first feature. Heart-breaking and horrifying, Family is incredible.

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