Six Movies About Alternately-Functioning Families


by Jeremy Mackie

When searching for film references for my latest short Chasing the Sun, I wanted to find film families that mimicked my own experiences, families that certainly didn’t live up to any normal standards in how they were made or operated. The films that accepted that parents are not always perfect, or even around in the end, and kids can be little selfish asses as well, but everybody fights the best fight they can and tries to find a way to connect and survive in far from ideal worlds.

I started thinking of them less as dysfunctional and more just operating in a different way, an alternative method of raising humans in the world, and I think that’s what makes these movies interesting.

The films on this list all take far-flung approaches to family life. You still see the power family has even when twisted and contorted, and to me they better represent all the different ways we get to to the point of calling each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ or ‘mother.’  Or not calling each other at all.

There’s varying levels of success to the family methods in these films, and some are too frightening to recommend at all (Dogtooth is particularly twisted in it’s approach, but not far-off from a deep religious orthodox upbringing), but all of them still show generations of humans trying to pass the torch as best they can, and definitely forging their own path.

My own alternately-functioning family story Chasing the Sun premieres locally on KCTS on July 18 and 24th, more information below, and can be viewed online right now at the KCTS Reel Northwest website.

Paris, Texas (1984)

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Director Wim Wenders drops a mysterious lost character out in the middle of the brooding Texas landscape, and lets us watch him as he slowly navigates his way back into the world, reuniting first with his brother who rescues him, and then with his son that he had abandoned years ago.  Harry Dean Stanton does an amazing portrayal of a man struggling with the enormous weight of bringing another person into the world, and the film’s measured pace and teased out details from an amnesiac lead character keeps leading you deeper down a dark path.

Besides absolutely gorgeous cinematography and a lyrical score, the film’s surprising and powerfully acted final scene keeps you locked in the entire time, a brilliantly layered reveal that leaves you absolutely exhausted by the end.

The Kids Are Alright (2010)

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Entertaining and yet very striking in its exploration of what makes up a family, this film revolves around a married lesbian couple with two children from the same anonymous sperm donor, and the children’s search for their ‘birth dad’ that threatens the bonds of this very modern family. I was particularly interested in this film because it handles the question of the ‘absent parent,’ the mystery of genetics and possibility on the mind of every child that doesn’t know one of the parents that made them.

In some ways simply a twist on some traditional family dramas, Mark Ruffalo plays the sperm donor suddenly interested in a family now that he sees his children in front of him, and Julianne Moore and Annette Bening have to dig deep to understand what it is to be a family. The movie goes to great lengths to develop Mark Ruffalo’s character, and the children drive as much of the action as the parents do, not just taking a back seat and crying when things get too dramatic. You get the sense that their ‘strange’ modern world has made them much better people.

Surfwise (2007)

This documentary is about a surfing guru that raised his nine children in an RV on the road during the 60’s, traveling from surf beach to surf beach throughout the US, instituting a strict regimen of surfing, health and rejection of the modern world and materialism for the entire family. An amazing look at somebody that did what many dream about today, raising a family ‘off-the-grid,’ and the interviews with all the children really turn your head about what that dream would mean in reality.

The details about the way they lived growing up surfing, crammed in a 27’ motorhome, and the father’s outlook on life and his militant iron-fisted rule is completely fascinating. Now mostly all grown up, the children’s different reactions to their upbringing in how they’ve lived their lives gives you a lot to mull over.  Even with this dreamy set-up of surfing all day and not having to connect with the modern world, there’s a definitely a lot missing in their lives, and it makes you really evaluate why a family exists—is it for the parents or for the children? Who is more important?

Dogtooth (2009)

A surreal tale of a husband and wife that completely cuts off their children from the outside world and builds their own legends and languages while raising their children in a ‘compound,’ this Greek film shows just how alternative you can go in raising your family. There is a bone-chilling creepiness to this film, a naivety mixed with ruthless authoritarianism and darkly comic moments.

Although more concerned about thrilling you and pushing your limits of discomfort than delving deeply into family relationships, there’s a certain truth in this film that all children in some way have to push through and reject the protective shell parents build for them. In Dogtooth, this shell is a compound full of bold lies, twisted sexual encounters and ridiculous beliefs, all told with deliciously mysterious strict framing and very real performances.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

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Discovered by the production company that made Jackass, this reality-style documentary about a coal-mining family in West Virginia at first seems too outlandish to be true; it plays mostly as comedy exploitation, but there’s a kernel of truth in there that surprises. Sure, they do everything wrong, including crack, pills and shoot-outs with the cops, but the fact that you can watch and see them operate as a family, it’s strangely humanizing.

There’s a moment watching this film that I stopped laughing at them, and really thought about how they count as a family too, and that even if you and the entire world writes them off as wastoids who can barely can survive in the real world, they still have bonds and connections as a family that are just as strong and real as those of the Johnsons with the white picket fence. It almost made me like them more, for all their faults, addictions and stupidity.

Eve’s Bayou (1997)

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Sometimes families are better off broken, and this drama-based noir from the 90’s serves a sumptuous dark look at how sometimes families need to quit being together to get better. A young Sam L. Jackson makes his already proven case for awesomeness playing a drunk, free-wheelin’ doctor who plays too loose and fast with other people’s wives. His sweet precocious daughter Eve grows up fast while dealing with all the drama around the house, getting to the point of killing her father (the film opens with her admitting she killed her dad – such a nice noir touch).

There are heaping handfuls of drama—it’s almost a soap-opera, really—but I loved the characters and the visions from the clairvoyant and the role she played in the community, the mirrors in the visions Eve has, the spooky asian fortune teller, and the way the visions work out. There’s a good sort of dark magic to the film, and it stays true to it’s noir roots, even when serving up a beautiful dish of gorgeous faces and high-drama speeches. I like the way this movie makes it’s point that the best families aren’t always together, sometimes you’re better off without a toxic parent.

About the short film Chasing the Sun:

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In the middle of an ill-conceived road trip, two long-separated siblings discover they have very different opinions when it comes to their long-buried family history, forcing them to face the past with hope and despair. The brother and sister chase after a ghost of an absent parent, searching for answers to questions they’ve kept to themselves for years.

The film plays on Monday July 18 at 11:30pm on KCTS, and again on Sunday July 24 with the Reel Northwest Narrative Shorts package at 4:30pm.  You can also view the film online at

A longtime worker in the Seattle film community, director Jeremy Mackie has made short films that have played numerous festivals, including The Return and While You Weren’t Looking, as well as the documentary A Little Bit Faster. He’s currently working on a feature project entitled Pinheads about two juvenile-delinquents that discover their family is cursed, and a fantastical pinball machine is left behind as the only explanation.

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