September 27, 2023



“Family Portrait” Review: A Visually Stunning Look into a Broken Reunion

“Family Portrait” Review: A Visually Stunning Look into a Broken Reunion

“The debut feature film from writer-director Lucy Kerr, ‘Family Portrait’ stars Deragh Campbell as a young woman who comes home for a dysfunctional family reunion overshadowed by an impending catastrophe.”

Many independent films are semi-autobiographical, with first-time directors turning the camera on their own families and lives. Films like Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow this trend.

Lucy Kerr’s debut feature Family Portrait could join their ranks, except there’s a catch: any family drama lurks below the surface, as the anxiety-filled film lacks a strong narrative. There is a bare-bones plot about a family reuniting for their annual group photo before the COVID pandemic. However, Kerr is more interested in building mood and sensation through captivating images, sounds, and physical movement.

Director Lucy Kerr graduated from CalArts’ film and video program and has created numerous shorts, including the 2021 conceptual documentary Crashing Waves about a stuntwoman. For her first feature film, the relatively short 78-minute Family Portrait, Kerr focuses on a large Texas family waiting to take their annual group photo, reminiscent of the elusive dinner parties in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Family Portrait has a surreal quality but also feels hyperreal at times, with amplified sounds by Nikolay Antonov and Andrew Siedenburg making rustling leaves sound like crashing waves while dialogue occasionally drops out entirely.

Protagonist Katy, played by Deragh Campbell, arrives home for the photo with her new boyfriend Olek (Chris Galust). She seems highly anxious from the start, learning of a relative’s mysterious lung illness and becoming the only one searching for her missing mother. Is Katy oversensitive, or noticing something the others ignore?

The film takes place over one afternoon, interspersing casual family conversations with a growing sense of anxiety and impending disaster. In one scene, Katy’s father (Robert Salas) recounts a story about an iconic photo of his own father taken in the Pacific after WWII, which was later manipulated as Vietnam War propaganda. Kerr seems to warn that any image can be distorted, even ones meant to capture reality.

As Family Portrait continues, Katy’s grasp on reality deteriorates. It’s as if she’s heading into an abyss, illustrated by a scene where she gradually disappears into a nearby stream, with cinematographer Lidia Nikonova’s camera diving alongside her. The cinematography is the film’s greatest strength, shifting between stunning Steadicam shots, especially at the start, and fixed angles observing the drama from a distance and odd perspectives.

The distanced camerawork makes it difficult to connect emotionally with Family Portrait, as does the lack of a clear narrative. However, what emerges in Kerr’s debut is an intoxicating portrait of sorts – more akin to a collage of fragmented snapshots where Katy and her family periodically unite and separate without ever forming a cohesive whole. The film provides glimpses into their lives without revealing the full picture.


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Ralph Calaway