(2011)3.5Perry SeibertWith the exception of movies constructed for and marketed to Christian audiences, Hollywood generally avoids religion whenever possible. The Perfect Family, a sweet and touching indie comedy-drama, tackles the subject head-on without offending or alienating anyone.
Kathleen Turner plays Eileen Cleary, a middle-aged housewife and mother to two grown children who has devoted much of her life to the Catholic Church. In recognition of this, her monsignor nominates her for "Catholic Woman of the Year," an honor that brings with it full absolution of all sins. She wants to win, but fears that her less-than-righteous family may stand in her way. Her husband Frank (Michael McGrady) is a recovering alcoholic, daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is pregnant and about to marry her lesbian partner, and son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) has left his wife for another woman.
As Eileen attempts to force this unruly crew to pretend to be a nice, normal, problem-free clan, her longtime nemesis Agnes (Sharon Lawrence) -- the other prospective nominee for Catholic Woman of the Year -- takes every opportunity to subtly and publicly embarrass Eileen, and to emphasize her own religious bona fides by starting a petition to outlaw gay marriage.
The setup of The Perfect Family makes it sound like a mean-spirited comedy in which a devout person can't see the truth about her family, but that's not the approach director Anne Renton and her screenwriters take. They have no problem showing Eileen's worst traits, but they also give her a great deal of dignity and strength -- she's a good person trying to live her life the way she thinks she should. A telling line comes when, at a moment of stress, Eileen declares, "I don't have to think. I'm Catholic!" The movie isn't about mocking her for those beliefs; it's about arguing that she needs to learn that dogmatic approaches to life are often, though not always, an insufficient way to deal with messy truths.
Turner hasn't had a role this meaty in a while, and it's a pleasure to see her play someone so average. We're used to seeing her portraying glamorous or at least uncommon characters, but it turns out her skill set includes playing a dowdy, middle-aged mother. Eileen is full of anxiety; she's always trying to measure up to her own and others' expectations, while demanding as much from herself as she does of everyone else. Turner communicates that unease constantly with little flurries of activity. Eileen can't relax because if she keeps herself forever occupied with major and menial tasks she can avoid examining herself all that closely, and this ceaseless bustle never comes off like a metaphor or a symbol; Turner gives a naturalistic, vanity-free performance. She gets stellar support from the whole cast, especially McGrady, who turns the taciturn Frank into a poignant portrait of a good husband.
The Perfect Family establishes and maintains a very difficult tone -- one false move and it becomes a mean-spirited excoriation of religion or a pious tract that alienates or bores nonbelievers. Thankfully, there isn't a single bad scene in the movie, and the actors and filmmakers never lose sight of what the picture is about: the power of faith, in all its various forms.