Credit: Insufficient Funds/Conjuring Productions NSF
by Jesse Catherine Webber Featured Film Horizon Line

Family Portrait — Lucy Kerr

June 25, 2024

Lucy Kerr’s feature debut Family Portrait begins in media res, at the titular scene. There’s chaos, but initially the chaos is only visual. The soundtrack is barely audible, the lowest ends of the frequency spectrum rustle. Members of a large family orbit each other, a blur of faces introduced simultaneously in a wide shot. If your attention is immediately drawn to anyone, it’s likely to be Deragh Campbell, most familiar to viewers from her work in Anne at 13,000 Ft. or her collaborations with Sofia Bohdanowicz. The first recognizable noises come into focus — the rustling of grass, an irregular patter of footsteps. If Campbell’s appearance hasn’t yet pulled one’s focus, her character will soon begin to, dragging people to the right, determining the direction of the scene and the camera. One woman holds a child, another a large box, and all players scatter about. Voices enter the soundscape as concerned whispers turn to shouts, but recognizable words remain elusive. Tensions mount, at one moment perhaps a pose is reached, people continue to drift, and then Kerr cuts.

The rest of the film builds back up to this sequence. Campbell leads its ensemble as Katy, whose boyfriend Olek has agreed to take the picture for her mother’s totemic annual Christmas card. If the temporality isn’t immediately obvious when the two awaken in bed, it becomes so as the taking of the photograph drives most of their action throughout the film. Such a circuitous structure seems unnatural for a film primarily based in building tension, but Kerr easily pulls it off, mining said tension from an array of veins. It’s not an issue that the answer to when, whether, and how the photograph will be pulled off is already resolved in the film’s first sequence — at least to an extent; it’s hard to catch many details in the chaos, especially before becoming comfortable with the cast — because the film explores the familial tensions underlying any acute group stressor. Some are preexisting; Katy may not function quite as a traditional black sheep, as it’s not clear if there’s any material rift between her and her family, but behavioral cues from Campbell and the actors playing her sisters bely some essential difference in their beings, one which impedes Katy from helping her partner complete his reluctant task, but also seems to block deep relation. It’s a sharp use of Campbell’s quasi-star persona, which is inherently at odds with the traditional Texas family.

The other tension introduced into the film at the news of a young relative’s death is the specter of Covid. The name of the disease is never explicitly referenced as the film seems to be set before anyone would have been likely to know it, and though the details clearly recall the confusion of early Covid deaths, the film uses its particular moment’s vagueness to take a more universal look at the familial anxiety foregrounded by a global pandemic. Though the forthcoming physical separation, which will mirror the emotional one witnessed between Katy and her sisters, hangs over the film, there’s a more insidious threat: Katy’s father immediately becomes obsessed with the idea her cousin “got something worse from the hospital,” which killed her. Without invoking unpalatable arguments about masking or vaccination, Kerr illustrates the concern that a family member’s politics or beliefs will result not only in the loss of life, but in a loss to one’s memory of them, their image in one’s mind becoming inextricable from their unwillingness to participate in the prevention of their own death. 

Despite her cannier approach, Kerr is unlikely to attract anyone put off by the very idea of a Covid movie. Though familiar tropes are avoided, and the insight offered may be a bit deeper and more nuanced than that of the many blunter films viewers have been inundated with over the past few years, Family Portrait is fundamentally still a look back at a traumatic time from which our present is not yet fully removed. But the approach does facilitate a broader survey of familial concerns, its probing likely to remain relevant even as Covid further recedes from public consciousness. Not only does the light touch allow the look at disease to feel extensible, it prevents the film, which through its mostly leisurely pacing replicates both the expansiveness of a familial gathering and its underlying tension, from being reduced to or overwhelmed by any single concern.

DIRECTOR: Lucy Kerr;  CAST: Deragh Campbell, Rachel Alig, Katie Folger, Chris Galust;  DISTRIBUTOR: Factory 25;  IN THEATERS: June 28;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 18 min.

Originally published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 1.