2018 in Review: Family Matters by Daniel Loría

“Who is going to be responsible for this baby?”

This simple (and loaded) question reverberates throughout Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, the consequence of a surprise pregnancy at an inopportune time. Black, 19 years old in early 1970s Harlem, with the father in jail on bogus charges—Tish (KiKi Layne) is keenly aware of the uphill battle she’s facing. The announcement of the pregnancy to her would-be in-laws isn’t a joyous occasion—not under the circumstances, not with the underlying tension—but it’s a moment that Jenkins stages with the same aesthetic flair that permeates 2016’s Moonlight. The question above, leveled through clenched teeth—first by her future mother-in-law, then by her future sister-in-law—shakes Tish’s demeanor, but not her resolve. There’s no easy solution in sight, but there’s no doubt that she’ll find a way through.

It’s also a question that could just as easily be asked in many of the standout films released in 2018. Families, at least in the non-traditional sense, were at the heart of some of the year’s strongest movies: foreign-language award contenders Capernaum and Shoplifters; domestic specialty titles If Beale Street Could Talk, Leave No Trace and Wildlife; and cerebral genre flicks Hereditary and Suspiria.  

Tish’s journey in If Beale Street Could Talk is marked by the frustrating fits and starts familiar to any minority group in this country. Jenkins’ direction shares Tish’s quiet outrage at the injustice that’s been imposed on her, but rather than seething or despairing, the film is anchored, against all logical hope for a positive resolution, by her determination to build a family regardless of her circumstances. The film’s emotional core lies in Tish’s relationships with the people around her; she might not end the film with the family she imagined, but it’s her family all the same.

The kids at the center of the non-traditional families in Wildlife and Leave No Trace find themselves in a similar predicament. The films’ protagonists are both early teens forced to forge their own path while dealing with parents absent either emotionally or physically. Caught in a situation outside their control, they do everything they can to try to keep their families together.

Paul Dano’s Wildlife depicts a coming-of-age story against the backdrop of a protracted divorce. Wildlife’s non-traditional family leaves Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and his mother (Carey Mulligan, in a career-best turn) to fend for themselves in small-town 1960s Montana. The pair struggles to find their own identities as their home life is turned upside down by an absent father (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film’s closing tableau, a family portrait, was one of last year’s most memorable scenes. Wildlife is Dano’s directorial debut, and stands alongside Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born as the year’s most prominent transition of an actor to the director’s chair.

The coming-of-age story in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace also tackles the challenges of a single-parent household. The household in question, however, is the forests of Oregon, where Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, in a breakout role) lives off the grid with her war-veteran father. They lead an itinerant life in the wilderness, moving from one location to the next as her father struggles with PTSD.

There are plenty of similarities to Granik’s Winter’s Bone here: Tom is forced to take charge of a situation she isn’t necessarily prepared for—if only to ensure her own well-being. Her resourcefulness in moments where she’s lacking self-confidence is the catalyst behind the film’s best scenes. Ultimately, what Tom yearns for the most isn’t a physical home—she’s as uninterested in that as her father—but a sense of belonging, a community where she can grow up.   

The yearning for belonging in these films has resonated with me in large part because of the social and political tumult taking hold across many democracies in recent years. A vitriolic strand of populism—the sort satirized in Spike Lee’s magnificent BlackKklansman, a period piece that couldn’t feel more timely—has seeped its way into our lives. From social media to the dinner table, groups of friends, colleagues, and family members are increasingly being divided into two camps: people we agree with, and people we don’t want to hear from anymore.

Those divisions are laid bare in two of the year’s most remarkable horror movies: Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. Aster’s film could be considered a multi-generational family melodrama if it weren’t for the unbridled cynicism that fuels its horror. A family is mourning the recent passing of its matriarch, a grandmother who only seemed interested in connecting with her granddaughter. Her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette, in the best performance of the year), however, struggles to cope with her lack of grief at her mother’s passing. Instead, she is consumed by resentment toward her that she is unable to shake.

“Riches to the conjurer,” reads a caption below a picture in an old family photo album Annie stumbles upon. Her mother sits in the middle of the photograph, clad in white and wearing a veil, surrounded by strangers showering her with gold coins. Hereditary is a movie about discovering truths we hate about the people we love. It’s horror’s equivalent of friending your relatives on Facebook.

“Riches to the conjurer” in Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’ (A24)

Annie does what she can to save her family from a legacy of terror she fears she can’t contain. It doesn’t work. There’s a demon in one of them, maybe it’s in all of them. Maybe it’s just in her head, maybe the demons died with her mother. The movie builds to a brooding nightmare of a climax reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. As in Polanski’s film, the conflict is never about the demon inside the child—but who is going to be responsible for raising the child in the first place.

This dysfunctional grandmother-mother infighting from beyond the grave mirrors the cross-generational matriarchal power struggle of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. A witches’ coven operating within a West Berlin ballet conservatory is as non-traditional a family as you can get. Then again, outside of the occasional seance, there’s hardly anything traditional about this Suspiria.

Suspiria is a movie that’s hard to like but easy to love, a film I admired more than I enjoyed. I had similar feelings about Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, another film with outsized (if unrealized) ambition. There’s a brazenness in taking a beloved source and discarding its most identifiable elements to create something entirely different. The only thing Guadagnino’s adaptation truly shares with Dario Argento’s 1971 cult Italian horror film is its title. The movie, frankly, is a bit boring. Nothing really happens in the first hour. Every time the narrative seems to get going, it stops and lingers on abstract details—akin to the same catatonic spell that befalls Dakota Johnson in the film. This Suspiria isn’t afraid of diving headfirst into tangents, especially a prominent (and significant) subplot about generational guilt and historical memory. The story boils down to a bureaucratic look at a witches’ coven, from the pettiness of board meetings to gossiping in the break room.

That’s what a remake should be. If you’re going to rehash something in another year dominated by cinematic universes, mega-franchises, and post-credit sequences, you might as well start from scratch. A Star is Born, another stellar remake from 2018, works for that very reason. A film shouldn’t be weighed down by the reputation of its previous iterations.

As in Hereditary, Suspiria is driven by the underlying tension among generations of women in a family unit. Both films feature an eerie matriarch, an openly defiant incumbent, and a newcomer with the potential for a bright future. Only one can emerge as head of the house, but they all share the same goal: preserving their corner of the world at all costs. None of the women of Suspiria are actually related—but the non-traditional family at the core of their community is the only true family they’ll ever need.

If a German ballet company acting as a front for a centuries-old witches’ coven is a wild concept, at least it’s a more formally structured group than the family of misfits in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. This year’s Palme d’Or winner, my favorite film of 2018, centers on a makeshift family of five—all of them of dubious relation to one another—sharing a home in a gentrifying part of Tokyo. Subsisting on a combination of the aging matriarch’s pension, paltry hourly wages, and low-level shoplifting, the group is hardly in a position to add another member when they stumble upon a frightened girl alone in an alleyway. Hungry and barely able to speak, the child is brought into their home once they realize no one’s coming for her. They never get around to bringing her back, and she’s not particularly keen on returning either. The situation recalls those blistering words from If Beale Street Could Talk, but in a different tenor: Who’s going to be responsible for this child?

The rest of the film reveals itself in increments: fleeting glances between characters, side-comments uttered to each other that hide deeper truths about their true identities. If we fault these characters for refusing to act rationally—particularly in regard to what the Tokyo PD calls a blatant kidnapping—it’s because we’ve missed the essence of the film’s emotional pull. It doesn’t matter that this band of outsiders isn’t related; they share a transcendental bond that brings them together. The audience knows this is a family destined to be pulled apart by the film’s end. The characters seem quietly aware of this as well, which gives every moment in Shoplifters a nostalgic resonance. Kore-eda is treading familiar ground here, but he’s at his finest. Shoplifters was the standout film of a Cannes competition so strong that Netflix’s absence at the event was of minor consequence.  

Boluwatife Treasure Bankole and Zain Al Rafeea in Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, another alumnus of the Cannes 2018 class and winner of the competition’s Grand Jury Prize, takes the non-traditional family theme to the slums of Lebanon. Tapping her neorealist credentials, Labaki uses location shooting and a cast of non-professional actors to provide an unflinching look at a bleak setting. Emerging from that squalor is the outsized personality of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a kid who doesn’t know his age (his parents don’t either, he’s around 11) and is running away from a broken home. Homeless and unemployed, Zain blends in with Lebanon’s refugee community—Syrians fleeing one form of oppression, Ethiopians fleeing another—a foreigner on home soil. This is a film about the refugee crisis starring refugees themselves; the artifice of the screenplay both helps the film and hinders it.   

Zain finds a brief respite in the film’s second act as the caretaker of an Ethiopian immigrant’s infant son, his only recourse to secure shelter, meals, and a meager wage. Our opening refrain is literal here: An abandoned infant is being cared for by a homeless 11-year-old—who the hell is going to be responsible for this baby?

Neorealism offers few subtle lessons, but Capernaum counters its protagonists’ hardships through the bond between Zain and his charge. It speaks to Labaki’s control of tone that audiences can still find moments of joy in a film with a lead who refuses to grant a smile until the final frame. The director’s willingness to keep the camera rolling on the child actors brings ephemeral moments of happiness, almost as if by accident, candid and intimate glimpses of children who have forgotten about their surroundings and the insurmountable odds stacked against them.

The children of Capernaum and Shoplifters refuse to be part of the families they were born into but strive to reclaim new ones for themselves. All these films deal with aspects of the family as a social construct, of the importance of retaining a sense of community and human interconnectedness in difficult times. It’s no wonder I responded to them so effusively. As much as I groan at any hint of identity politics intersecting with film criticism, it’s impossible to separate my own engagement with the films I saw in 2018 from the reality that many Mexican families are facing in this country. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that for many Mexicans in the United States, 2018 was the year of the non-traditional family. The year of children being separated from their parents at the border. The year many of us went to sleep wondering: Who exactly is going to be responsible for those children?

Daniel Loría’s Top 20 Films of 2018

1. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Magnolia Pictures)

2. Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, Amazon Studios)

3. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Strand Releasing)

4. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, Annapurna)

5. BlackKklansman (Spike Lee, Focus Features)

6. Wildlife (Paul Dano, IFC Films)

7. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, Warner Bros.)

8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Bros., Netflix)

9. Hereditary (Ari Aster, A24)

10. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, Well Go USA)

11. First Man (Damien Chazelle, Universal)

12. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, Bleecker Street)

13. Vox Lux (Brady Corbet, Neon)

14. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, Paramount)

15. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Netflix)

16. At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, CBS Films)

17. Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, Sony Pictures Classics)

18. The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, Annapurna)

19. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, Annapurna)

20. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony)

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