Not All Indie Family Dramedies Are Alike

All happy families are alike,” claims the immortal first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”; “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And while jaded viewers may opine that all indie dramedies about dysfunctional families in the “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Squid and the Whale” mold are alike, writer-director Haroula Rose’s “All Happy Families” suggests the genre has moved in a more grounded direction. Whether that’s ultimately a better direction remains to be seen.

The focal point of this particular family is Graham (Josh Radnor), an aspiring screenwriter/actor whose older brother Will (Rob Huebel) stars on a hugely popular (and seemingly terrible) TV series. As Will surprises Graham by flying from Los Angeles to Chicago for an unannounced visit to the childhood home they bought together, their mother Sue (Becky Ann Baker) is trying to figure out how to react to her former boss touching her inappropriately at her retirement party, and their father Roy (John Ashton) may or may not be gambling again. 

If that sounds like a lot, it’s only the tip of the iceberg: Graham recently reconnected with a college friend named Dana (Chandra Russell) who’s about to be his new tenant, Will’s teenage daughter (Ivy O’Brien) has just come out as trans, and Will himself is being cagey about the reason for his surprise homecoming. The Landrys really are unhappy in their own way.

Radnor — a multihyphenate who wrote, directed and starred in two Sundance hits while playing the lead in the long-running “How I Met Your Mother” — seems entirely at ease playing the tired, increasingly world-weary Graham. It’s as though he can’t believe that, despite not exactly having his act together, he’s somehow become the most well-adjusted member of his family. The script by Rose and co-writer Coburn Goss is at its best when focusing on the reignited spark between Graham and Dana, a chef who, unlike her soon-to-be landlord, isn’t wont to self-sabotage when on the precipice of having something nice in her life. “All Happy Families” sometimes feels like several movies at once, its overlapping subplots competing for dominance like attention-starved siblings, with the rom-com segments ultimately emerging as the golden child. 

But there’s just so much else going on. “I cannot believe this is my family,” says Sue, a matriarch losing control, during a particularly low moment between the brothers. It may be the film’s most relatable line, one that many of us have thought at one point or another even if we’ve never said it out loud. “All Happy Families” isn’t one for grandiloquence or overwrought monologues, just small, lived-in moments that come close to making the film more than the sum of its intentionally disjointed parts.

This would be a lot for any family of four to manage. It’s also a lot for any filmmaker, especially one making a 90-minute slice of life. Little surprise, then, that “All Happy Families” ends up feeling incomplete, as though we were watching the pilot for a miniseries rather than a standalone feature. There’s something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more, but there’s even more to be said for telling a story that feels finished by the time the credits roll. Rose and Goss touch on a lot of heavy subjects — most of the subplots could power entire narratives by themselves — but don’t have time to do much more than touch on most of them.

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