The Family Fang (2015): Sibling Togetherness

After ‘Bad Words’, Bateman the director appears to be heading in the right direction and takes on a more ambitious, layered project. This film deals not only with a dysfunctional family, a concept that has fascinated American cinema ever since American Beauty (1999), but also with the relation between art and life. Thematically, the family ensemble has been portrayed more incisively in the recent past (The Squid and the Whale (2005), to name just one example with a similar character ratio), but the manner in which relationships are blurred and redefined here gives Fang a captivating spin.

We are presented with two seemingly wayward, middle-aged siblings who, it turns out, grew up in a tradition of ‘intempestive art’. Alongside their eccentric parents, they enacted hoaxes of different scales in front of onlookers who were not in on the game – all with the aim of eliciting life out of the an otherwise mundane, controlled existence. As an accident reunites the family, which had drifted apart in the mean time, tensions persist, culminating when the parents disappear and the obvious question is asked: is this just another hoax?

The story works primarily because Kidman (Annie) and Bateman (Baxter), child A and child B, as their parents called them, convey an understanding that does not require explanations. It’s the kind of sibling relationship that draws from so many shared experiences, joys and traumas that it defines a common frame of existence which time has difficulty in erasing. Similarly, we as an audience draw the faith required to suspend our disbelief from the energy the two control when on screen together. The questions pertaining to the philosophy of art, its authenticity and veracity, are interesting to ponder, but they only provide the backdrop to what Annie and Baxter have going on. The point of convergence between the two themes is that of control – its purpose in art, its purpose in relationship building.

This is fascinating, as control is so inherent to anything that happens in the early years within a family: the setting of constraints to the socially unrestrained spirit of childhood. It does not have to be coercive, but it is a matter of natural imprinting that occurs along the way, whether overtly or not. As adults, the struggle becomes to establish what we can (and should) control and what we need to let run freely. The mantra their father had instilled in Annie and Baxter emphasized the idea that by staying centered, one can let the surrounding chaos sweep over and past you. A lot of the time it’s easier said than done. We also see that different people need different things in order to express themselves – a given, sure, but finely synthesized in Annie’s qualms as an actor and Baxter’s writer’s block.

Where the story does fall a bit short is in the resolution. In a way, it’s predictable and boring, but it’s also inevitable. Inevitability is usually a good thing to have in an ending, especially in one dealing with the nature of art. Still, a stronger build up and a more resolute finale would have turned Family Fang into a really memorable piece of work. As it stands, it overemphasizes the idea that unrestrained (performance) art comes at a hidden cost both to those involved and to those affected by it. That it becomes hard to keep art and life contained. And, surely, that the price for this is too high.

Nonetheless, my newly found penchant for movies about siblings really let me enjoy this story. Perhaps just a bit more than I should have, but that’s thanks to how authentic Annie and Baxter feel and the depth they lend to the experience. Also, Carter Burwell, one of my favourite composers, contributes with a sweet theme, really letting you sink into the intimate melancholy and nostalgia of it all.