Maybe it looks like dinner around a little kitchen table: shared stories through mouthfuls of mashed potatoes and “pass the salt” without the need for please or thank you. Maybe it looks like fighting: the melodrama of a slammed door, the potential energy of the silent treatment. Or it’s small gestures, like a favorite flavor of ice cream picked up from the bodega on the way home. Family looks different to everyone, and this year, they took many forms on the big screen. As the real world just outside the window looms large, these cinematic families were, at times, a source of comfort, a safe harbor — and less so in other cases, instead echoing and amplifying the pain of their reality.
Two of 2018’s standout films charted families in decline, their bonds serving as channels not of support, but of hurt. Paul Dano’s Wildlife shows the remains of a family after nomadic husband and father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) departs their Montana home to do battle with a forest fire, leaving behind son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who watches with baleful eyes as his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) unravels. Smoke billows ominously in the sky, and Jeanette strays, throwing herself into an affair and pulling on the loose ends of their family until they become undone. Though set in 1960, it’s a film that fits seamlessly into 2018: the claustrophobic chafing under gendered expectations, the helplessness of watching a marriage fall apart, exacerbated by the gnawing worry of a danger on the edge of town.
This danger is more deadly in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. One by one, the members of this family fall to the hands of a demonic cult, which has infiltrated its way into their home by way of mother Annie’s (Toni Collette) own bloodline. The supernatural forces at play amplify existing rifts: the blithe isolation of Annie’s husband (Gabriel Byrne), the simmering resentment of her teenage son (Alex Wolff), the strange behavior of her daughter (Milly Shapiro), and, most of all, Annie’s own fears of motherhood, compounded by the never-ending grief that cocoon the house like a noxious gas. As the cult slowly closes in, the family’s own failure to “come together”, as Annie laments, spells their downfall. Like the Montana forest, these families succumb and fall to ash.
And yet, there are the families that do help one another, that face the world with hands tightly clasped. In A Quiet Place, a family of soon to be five clings to survival, even as every step of their existence is threatened by sound-sensitive monsters (and by the world’s worst placed nail). It’s a literal interpretation of the fear parents carry around with them every day: having to watch their children navigate a world that could tear them apart after one misstep. Amidst this apocalyptic backdrop, the family finds humanity within one another. Husband and wife dance to Neil Young; father teaches son to fish. A father’s love for his daughter, manifested physically in the cochlear implants he lovingly created for her over the years, becomes key in disabling their attackers and protecting the family. Here, togetherness is strength.
In Eighth Grade, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) navigates her final week of middle school and the real-life horrors of being a teenage girl in 2018. After her attempts to find belonging in the popular crowd and high school boys and Instagram DMs go painfully awry, she, touchingly, finds the embrace of her single father (Josh Hamilton) waiting for her when the anxiety of adolescent existence brings her to her lowest. The words her he offers her, accompanied by the warm glow of a fire, are in stark contrast to the cool indifference and blue screens of the world around her and offer a refuge when she needs it most.
Just as in Eighth Grade, protection comes, unexpectedly, from within in Shoplifters, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. The titular makeshift family is mired in poverty, eeking out a life from a pension of questionably legal origins, a two-room home, and a good deal of petty theft. Director Hirokazu Kore-Ida’s lens floats after each member, all forgotten things, tender as it gazes at the life they scrape by. They are defined not by what they lack, but in their bountiful love for one another. They tease and share scars and choose to remain together, despite the lack of barely any blood relation. Although the scrutiny of capitalism eventually creeps its way in, for a few glorious scenes, these societal outsiders find safety within a family of their own making.
Every day, the world changes a little more. It’s an era of anxiety, brought on by rapidly developing technology and deteriorating institutions and shifting values. In times of strife, we turn to those closest to us. It’s no wonder that filmmakers, too, have trained their lenses on the dynamics of families. We question the world around us, and we wonder who lies sleeping from us under the same roof — and when the world is banging at our door, if we can find safety in their arms.