What constitutes a family? Since birth, we’re told certain people around us are part of our family, but what does family even mean? We don’t choose these people and they don’t choose us, so at what point does it all click? At what point does someone go from being that other person in my life to being the most important person in my life? Much of this is explored in a whole chunk of the movies premiering at the Sundance Film Festval this year, most notably skipping through the veins of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas and Lynn Shelton’s Laggies — three films about discovering one’s self through family, and the ever-evolving power of connecting as one badass unit that can conquer just about all of life’s funky little obstacles.
Arguably one of the most ambitious films you’ll ever see, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tracks the life of one family over the course of 12 years, with the Dazed and Confused filmmaker choosing to actually shoot the movie over a 12-year span. What we’re left with is this incredibly immersive tone poem about growing up and moving on, and the moments that define us at all the stages of our lives. Linklater moves seamlessly from year to year, moment to moment, using only the slight changes in appearance and culture to cue us on how much time has passed since the last scene, and by the end you’ll feel like this massive time capsule was just injected into your soul.
This isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. There aren’t any specific plot points that keep you guessing, or a particular “event” ending it’s working towards. Boyhood simply floats in and out of these lives — their fights, their first kisses, their evolution as human beings. Who they love. How they cope. Why they change. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette — along with their on-screen children, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater — do an incredible job of evolving with their characters over such a long period of time, while also remaining consistent in who they are and what makes them tick. And as we watch them grow and change with the world around them, Linklater colors the background of each year with its music, politics and technology, to the point where your moments and the characters’ moments begin to blur, and it’s not their lives we’re watching — it’s our own.
In Happy Christmas, filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) brings his naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic to a story about connecting with the family you marry into, for better or for worse. Anna Kendrick stars as Jenny, a girl who’s stuck between what used to be and what happens next; trapped in this emotional vortex while she spends the holidays at her brother’s house in the hopes of figuring out her next moves. But while her brother (Swanberg), his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and their scene-stealing toddler (played by Swanberg’s own son Jude) go about their everyday lives, Jenny searches for ways to fit in and connect with the new additions to her family even though she’s one bourbon shot away from complete self-destruction.
She’s kinda like Keira Knightley in Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, an adorable and accessible romantic comedy about discovering yourself through someone else’s family. Knightley stars as Megan, a mess of a girl who struggles to find that last piece of the becoming-an-adult puzzle. She’s got the great longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber), the tight-knit group of lifelong friends, and the parents who support her in whatever life calls upon her to do. Problem is, she’s ignoring life’s calls, and after a chance encounter with a free-spirited teenager (Chloe Moretz), Megan concocts a plan to ditch her life for a week and crash with a girl who’s essentially the teenage version of herself in the hopes of rediscovering who she is and what she wants to be.
What’s great about all three films is they feature complex, troubled women who all overcome various obstacles and become stronger for it. Whether it’s a broken marriage, a wounded heart or a lack of purpose in life, all of these characters use the power of family in different ways to find what they’re searching for.
Eventually it’s what we’re all searching for, though. That connection. That pulse that drives us forward, connecting us moment to moment. Our family. Your family. The ones who you choose and the ones who are chosen for you. What these movies tell us is something we don’t tell ourselves enough. That the quality of your life doesn’t depend on what you do with it — it depends on who you share it with.
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