10 great films about awkward family gatherings

From Festen to The Royal Tenenbaums, we celebrate the fireworks that flare up whenever families get together on screen.

Anna Cale

The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell (2019)

As we become adults, we often think that our families are better experienced at a distance. But sometimes we must travel home, leading to reignited family tensions or even unexpected revelations.

In Lulu Wang’s new release, The Farewell, young New Yorker Billi (Awkwafina) discovers that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai is dying of cancer back in China, and that her family have decided to keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai. But they still want to gather together to say their goodbyes, so they hatch an elaborate plan to stage a fake wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his girlfriend of just three months. Billi returns to China as aunts, uncles and cousins all gather around the unsuspecting family matriarch for a loving celebration intended to hide her secret farewell.

It’s an awkward family conceit of epic proportions, but it’s borne from a place of respect and affection for the rock of the family. Billi is torn between her modern sensibilities and respect for family and cultural traditions, and just wants to do the right thing by her beloved grandmother.

The Farewell is the latest in a long line of films that have captured that feeling of awkwardness and tension when a family comes together. Even when relatives have the best of intentions, it can often lead to an inevitable showdown. Blood might be thicker than water but these are the kinds of family get-togethers when you might be tempted to hit the cooking sherry.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director Frank Capra

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Meeting the in-laws for the first time is always a daunting prospect, but when you discover some unexpected guests are staying at the family home, things can become rather awkward. In this surprisingly dark comedy from director Frank Capra, Cary Grant stars as Mortimer Brewster, a writer and notorious marriage detractor. When Brewster suddenly falls in love and marries Elaine (Priscilla Lane), the newlyweds make a trip back home to break the news to his eccentric family, only to discover a corpse hidden in a window seat. It turns out his dotty aunts have a hobby: killing old men and hiding their bodies around the house.

Based on the stage play by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace is a sparkling, twisted farce set in the respectable middle-class suburbs. The film is bolstered by a deftly comic performance from Grant and the supporting cast of oddball aunts, uncles and siblings. 

Ordinary People (1980)

Director Robert Redford

Ordinary People (1980)

An affluent Chicago family is torn apart by grief, their orderly lives disintegrate, and relationships break seemingly beyond repair. After the accidental death of his older brother, guilt-ridden Conrad (Timothy Hutton) attempts suicide. His parents, played by Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, deal with their anguish differently, pushing each other away in the process. When Conrad returns to the family home after a stint in a psychiatric hospital, the family try to deal with their feelings and face the future.

An understated study in relationships and grief, Ordinary People marked the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and won four Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and supporting actor for Hutton, who plays the troubled, alienated Conrad with such poignancy. An intelligent, delicately observed film, each character is given the space to look inside themselves, and the interplays between them capture the essence of a family struggling to reconnect.

Milou en mai (1990)

Director Louis Malle

Milou en mai (1990)

Nothing brings a family together, or tears it apart, like the death of a matriarch. Although set at the height of the 1968 student protests in Paris, Louis Malle’s gently satirical comedy Milou en mai focuses on the domestic rather than the political agenda.

When the family matriarch dies suddenly, members of the Vieuzac clan are forced to come together at their rambling countryside estate for the funeral. The reunion soon turns into a showcase of sibling rivalry and seething resentment. Each has his or her own agenda, as family secrets are revealed and complex interwoven relationships unravel. They fight over the family silver, but ignore the importance of that which unites them, the anchor of the family home and status. The Vieuzacs feel safe in their middle-class bubble, until rumour and exaggerated fears of revolution come crashing in from outside and threaten to take away all they hold dear.

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Director Mike Leigh

Secrets and Lies (1996)

When Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young black woman, sets out to find her birth mother after the death of her adoptive parents, she gets rather a surprise when she turns out to be white factory worker Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). Cynthia is a constant bag of nerves as she struggles to build bridges with her joyless daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) has made a success of himself but struggles to impress his spiky wife Monica (Phyllis Logan).

Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, captures the essence of British suburban life and the burden of family loyalty and duty. It’s funny and moving in equal measure. The film culminates in a particularly poignant scene as the family gather together for a celebration so awkward and palpably strained, the cracks they’ve tried so hard to cover up burst through and family secrets unravel. 

The Ice Storm (1997)

Director Ang Lee

The Ice Storm (1997)

In 1973, two seemingly stable suburban families begin to fall apart over an eventful Thanksgiving holiday. Frustrated with his mundane life, Ben (Kevin Kline) cheats on his wife Elena (Joan Allen) as he embarks on an affair with neighbour Janey (Sigourney Weaver). Their teenage daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) starts a liaison with Janey’s son Mikey (Elijah Wood) and the complicated trysts lead to a denouement as frightening as the impending ice storm about to hit town.

Ang Lee’s taut drama elegantly portrays the gradual breakdown of two families that never really had the strong bonds to last the distance. It shows with continuously building disquiet that their reality is all surface and no feeling, that as a family they can’t weather the storm that’s bearing down on them. Each family member’s true identity and feelings remain hidden from each other, and Lee also keeps them unnervingly distant from the viewer.

Festen (1998)

Director Thomas Vinterberg

Festen (1998)

As the extended family and friends of a wealthy and respected patriarch (Henning Moritzen) gather to celebrate his 60th birthday, one son intends to reveal long-held family secrets that threaten to sour the party, with serious long-term consequences.

Vinterberg’s powerful Danish drama is an uncomfortable watch to say the least. Its Dogme 95 Manifesto credentials of using naturalistic production serve to strengthen the feeling of exposure, as its pared-down staging and visual intimacy strip it of any elegance and reveal the family’s corrupt heart with startling honesty.

The title of the film translates as ‘The Celebration’ but there is little for the party guests to cheer for once the dark secrets are unravelled. Amid the gloom and seriousness, there are moments of dark humour, which starkly highlight the rot at the heart of the family, and perhaps ask us as the audience to question our own moral judgement and conscience.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Director Wes Anderson

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Tenenbaum children are all extraordinary, yet their childhood genius and success was blighted by betrayal and family separation. Now in adulthood, all they’ve experienced is disappointment, most of it down to their eccentric father. The unhappy family unexpectedly reunite one winter, as absent patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) tries to reconcile with his children, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller, and his ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston).

The Royal Tenenbaums is a film about family dysfunction, lost opportunities and wasted greatness, long-held resentments and the chance of redemption. The ensemble cast also includes Danny Glover, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray.

Wes Anderson’s charming film is full of his usual subtly surreal and absurdist themes and motifs. Supposedly based on a non-existent novel and told in a style that references J.D. Salinger, with echoes of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), it’s a unique take on the traditional family feud. 

A Christmas Tale (2008)

Director Arnaud Desplechin

A Christmas Tale (2008)

Arnaud Desplechin’s ensemble comedy-drama tells the story of another strong French matriarch, played by Catherine Deneuve. Junon, a beautiful and stylish woman, is married to the older Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), and they have a strained relationship punctured by barbed conversation. She isn’t exactly full of warmth when she communicates with her children either. But after learning she has leukemia, she gathers her fractious family together for Christmas. The Vuillards are no strangers to illness, grief and painful conversations, and the gathering highlights their strained relationships, inevitably leading to confrontations and home truths.

The high-class cast also includes Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos. Desplechin is an intriguing director; his award-winning 2004 film Kings and Queen demonstrated his ability to weave multiple stories together, and this film builds on that range and depth of character as the complexity of each member of the family is explored.

Happy End (2017)

Director Michael Haneke

Happy End (2017)

Michael Haneke’s spikey satirical comedy of social manners and bourgeois family dysfunction is a rather evil yet touching tale of generational divide and connection. When her mother dies, 12-year-old Eve moves in with her estranged father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his family at their rambling Calais estate. The family is headed up by Anne (Isabelle Huppert) in place of her aging father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who has dementia and keeps trying to end his life.

Haneke is a filmmaker who defies convention, and Happy End showcases his key themes and playful visual tricks. He makes the viewer work hard. Often scenes are played out through doorways, windows or phone screens, the characters with their backs to us or hidden slightly behind frames. This adds to the feeling of disjoint. He’s teasing us: we’re not completely welcome to join the family; we’re interlopers just like Eve in this black comedy of errors.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

Director Ben Wheatley

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. (2018)

When Colin Burstead hires a fancy country house for his extended family to celebrate New Year together, tensions surface and simmer between relatives, coming to a head when estranged younger brother David unexpectedly arrives. Colin’s building frustration with the breakdown in proceedings is palpable, as the film moves seamlessly between the pathos and comedy of a family forced to play happily together.

The nuances of family relationships are always laid bare by forced fun, and Ben Wheatley’s film presents us with an intricate but relatable domestic tableau. Protagonists move around the building, avoiding confrontation and family power-plays like an elaborate game of human chess. The strong ensemble cast, led by Neil Maskell as Colin, includes Charles Dance, Hayley Squires and Sam Riley as the enigmatic David. The intimacy created by the handheld camera and the feeling of improvisation bring a realistic sense of tension and claustrophobia amid the lavish surroundings. 

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