‘Family Portrait’ Review: A Highly Cinematic Glimpse of a Fractured Reunion

‘Family Portrait’ Review: A Highly Cinematic Glimpse of a Fractured Reunion

“Write about what you know,” the saying goes, and the same rule of thumb often applies to independent movies, with many a debuting filmmaker turning the camera on their own lives and families to create their first dramas. Such features as Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and even Ari Aster’s Hereditary are prime examples of the genre, and there are surely countless others.

Writer-director Lucy Kerr’s Family Portrait could be added to that list, except there’s a catch: If there’s drama, it exists somewhere beneath the surface, in a movie that’s filled with anxiety and foreboding without ever showcasing much of a plot. There is, in fact, a bare-bones narrative about a family coming together for their annual group photo — per the press notes, this happens just before the start of the COVID pandemic — but Kerr is less interested in storytelling than building moods and sensations, which she achieves through a beguiling combination of images, sounds and human bodies in motion.

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Family Portrait

The Bottom Line

Quietly disquieting.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Cineasti del presente)
Cast: Deragh Campbell, Chris Galust, Rachel Alig, Katie Folger, Robert Salas
Director, screenwriter: Lucy Kerr

1 hour 18 minutes

A graduate of the CalArts film and video program, the director has made numerous shorts, including Crashing Waves, a conceptual documentary about a stuntwoman that played festivals back in 2021. For her first feature-length effort (and at 78 minutes, a relatively short one), Kerr focuses on an extended Texas clan waiting around to sit for a photograph that keeps eluding them — not unlike the couples in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, who never manage to sit down for dinner.

Indeed, there’s a surreal side to Family Portrait, although the film also feels hyperreal in places, with sound designers Nikolay Antonov and Andrew Siedenburg turning up the mix at key moments. When leaves rustle, it’s like a tidal wave suddenly washing over the land. At other times the sound almost drops out completely, plunging the viewer into a troubling void.

Kerr’s protagonist is Katy (actress-director Deragh Campbell, I Used to Be Darker), a daughter who’s come home with her new boyfriend, Olek (Chris Galust from the underseen indie Give Me Liberty), for the annual photo, and seems highly anxious from the second we meet her. Much of the action takes place from her viewpoint: She learns about a relative dying from a mysterious lung infection, then appears to be the only one looking for her missing mother. Is Katy simply oversensitive, or is she seeing something the others don’t?

Set during a single afternoon, the film blends casual scenes of family discussions with instances of creeping angst as disaster hovers in the background. One sequence has Katy’s father (Robert Salas) telling a long story about an iconic photo of his own father that was taken in the Pacific at the end of WWII, then utilized years later as propaganda during the Vietnam War. Any image can be manipulated, Kerr seems to be warning us, even ones that are supposed to depict an unaltered reality.  

As Family Portrait progresses, Katy’s reality begins to dissipate as well. It’s as if she were heading into the abyss — a sentiment illustrated by a scene where she gradually disappears into a nearby stream, with cinematographer Lidia Nikonova diving into the water right alongside her. The camerawork is definitely the film’s strongest asset, switching between breathtaking Steadicam shots, especially in the opening scene, and fixed shots where we observe the drama at odd angles and from a certain remove.

The distancing effect makes it hard to relate to Family Portrait in any emotional way, as does the absence of a palpable story. And yet, what emerges from Kerr’s debut is an intoxicating portrait of sorts — or more like a series of fragmented snapshots where Katy and her loved ones keep coming together and breaking apart, like photos assembled into a collage without ever forming a full picture.