A fantastically penned take on Chicago from the prohibition era onwards from the perspective of a ballerina who ends up living in a dark fairy tale. It’s a work that washes over you, that takes you to another place, then rudely shoves you back to reality. The author — Alyssa Wees — has an amazing command for detailing physicality, diving deep into what is entailed in immersing oneself into this sort of craft and stage work.
To say more would lessen the impact, but I will say: it’s quite the phantasmagoria.
(Theaters) Michael Glover Smith’s RELATIVE is a refreshing throwback family ensemble drama, the kind of indie film that traditionally centers around a homecoming during the holidays or a major family event.
In the case of RELATIVE, the inciting ceremony is a college graduation party for Benji Frank (THE WALKING DEAD’s Cameron Scott Roberts), the youngest child of four who is described as a late-in-life miracle baby by his aged hippie parents, librarian Karen (TWIN PEAKS’ Wendy Robie) and retiree David (grand character actor Francis Guinan).
Living in Karen and David’s basement is their thirty-something asshole son, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher), a veteran recovering from both PTSD and a four-year-old breakup.
Rounding out the family is Evonne (Clare Cooney) whose marriage and mental state appears to be strained, and Norma (Emily Lape, MERCY’S GIRL), who presents a cool, calm, and collected veneer to her family that all is well in her world, but that she pines for older times.
What follows isn’t as conflict-driven as you may think, but there is tension in the air as all of the characters find themselves at their own crossroads, exploring life-changing decisions all while under the comforting roof of the family home.
Smith is known for his paeans to Chicago and RELATIVE is no exception. It is primarily filmed in the far north regions of Chicago, mostly Rogers Park which happens to be Smith’s neighborhood. Rogers Park also houses RELATIVE’s family abode, and Smith takes great care to gloriously portray its interiors via several long pans, detailing hand-painted landscapes with inventively embedded lighting, all framed by the signature molding of 19th century Chicago.
Oh, and when the characters occasionally escape Rogers Park, they run off to Andersonville’s mainstay gastropub Hopleaf*, or happen to be in the nearby village of Wilmette.
If there’s one qualm I have, it’s that Smith hits a few dialogue refrains harder than I would have liked. There’s a repeated bit about ‘choosing soup’ that is clearly meant to be an insightful-but-also-comedic icebreaker, the kind ripped from real life, that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Nonetheless, Smith serves up a quiet, thoughtful depiction of a family, comprised of individuals who miss their old bonds, some who wonder about the unknown, while others are eager to exit. RELATIVE explores these familial bonds with aplomb while respecting the audience by exerting considerable restraint when it comes to revealing certain facets of the characters. While the audience is rewarded as matters wrap, Smith allows for some questions to linger and remain with you long after the film is over.
Trailer (although, if the above sounds appealing to you, skip it!):
While I understand the difficulty of finding a unique bar that was also open to allowing a film shoot while COVID reigned, as an Andersonville resident who often frequents Hopleaf, I couldn’t help but flinch while watching Benji eat pizza and drink wine in the venue. You head to Hopleaf for the mussels or, if you tire of those then a hot sandwich, and you wash it down with an eclectic Belgium draft beer.
(DVD/YouTube) Apologies in advance for the lengthy entry — please bear with me.
I moved to Chicago to attend film school, specifically Columbia College Chicago (not to be confused with NYC’s Columbia College). Back in the 90s, Columbia College Chicago was known as a film trade school: folks who worked in the industry taught you the basics to become another cog in the industry, and you were immediately able to get your hands on a camera, sit behind an AVID deck, rig lights, etc., as opposed to say UCLA or NYU, which taught you film history and theory for two years before you could shoot a single frame of film.
Freshmen CCC film students were required to enroll in FILM TECH I, and your first exercise was to shoot a three-minute silent film in Grant Park, an iconic Chicago space carved out in the mid-19th century, and was never to meant be touched by developers’ hands. It’s also basically Columbia College Chicago’s backyard.
Grant Park also happens to be the location of the protests that occurred during 1968 Democratic National Convention, the time and place of Haskell Wexler’s (best know as the Oscar-winning cinematographer of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOS NEST, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) hybrid fact/fiction documentary MEDIUM COOL, a film primarily concerned with the ethics (or lack thereof) of documentaries and photographic/filmic journalism, but whose captured footage of the DNC protest turned the film into an evergreen historical document.*
If you aren’t familiar with the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, here’s a primer.
(If you can’t view it, basically: a peaceful protest was turned into a bloody warfield by Chicago cops abusing their authority, all approved by the first Daley mayor.)
I didn’t see MEDIUM COOL until about a year into my CCC education, but I was still shell-shocked to see it, shot in the very same field I filmed a terribly pretentious, very slight short film. I admit, I felt a bit dirty, despite the fact that yes, it’s a public space but, after watching MEDIUM COOL, it felt like hallowed ground (even if it hosts Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Fest every year).
Watching the events unfold yesterday (January 6th 2021), witnessing folks storming the US Capitol, watching a coup so dumb it felt like Christopher Morris penned it, immediately brought me back to when my wife and I travelled to DC for the Women’s March in 2016 which was definitely a clusterfuck of a protest, but still: it was a peaceful, indelible protest.
It made me recall all of the times I’ve seen protests in the news, and how when I was in D.C. my mind blurred into all of the prior D.C. protest footage I’ve seen in film and news over the years. It was a surreal moment then, and seeing a locale turn into the shitshow of domestic terrorism we witnessed on the 6th, of cops simply opening the floodgates into the US Capitol, allowing these racist, seditious assholes run rampant through the building, looting it as if the Patriots just won the Super Bowl, fried my brain.
To say we haven’t resolved the issues that spurred the police abuse in 1968, events that occurred ~fifty years ago., would be an understatement. But this is why MEDIUM COOL exists: to visually document historically important events, to reflect on them, and to force the viewer to reconcile the events in the film with the events in their current lives.
(Hulu/kanopy/mubi/tubi/VOD) Absolutely charming ‘summer of self-discovery’ film about a teen visiting her writer aunt in Ravenswood, Chicago. As I lived in Ravenswood for several years (and currently live adjacent to the neighborhood) I recognized -every single location- in the film, even down to the church the aunt attends, which means that the film’s home field advantage may unfairly tilt my critical scales, but it really is an extraordinarily delightful film. Pairs well with Showtime’s WORK IN PROGRESS.
(Warning: the trailer is less of a trailer and more of a highlight reel, so you may want to avoid it.)
(VOD) Recently watched A DREAM OF KINGS which I found notable for its use of Chicago. There’s a short scene where Anthony Quinn (playing a Greek again) riproars away from the old Lakeview Treasure Island — my local market when I moved to my Roscoe apt in Chicago — which absolutely delighted me. Quinn here feels like a proto-Tony Soprano, partially because of his bullying and selfishness, but also because of how Quinn carries himself, breathily lumbering through scenes.