Chosen “Family”

There is nothing that is considered normal. These are the words that I repeated to myself throughout middle school. In recent years, we have had a sea of coming-of-age stories based on young women who consider themselves outcasts, from “Lady Bird” (2017) to “Edge of Seventeen” (2016) and the recent Booksmart” (2019). But there’s also an indie feature from first-time director Laura Steinel that belongs in these rankings: “Family” (2019).

In recent years, we have had a sea of coming-of-age stories based on young women who consider themselves outcasts, from “Lady Bird” (2017) to “Edge of Seventeen” (2016) and the recent Booksmart” (2019). But there’s also an indie feature from first-time director Laura Steinel that belongs in these rankings: “Family” (2019).

On the surface, it is typical. A hard-working executive, Kate (Taylor Schilling), at a hedge fund in New Jersey has spent her entire life devoted to work and must babysit her niece Maddie (Bryn Vale) from her estranged brother for one night (which turns into a week), and Maddie cracks a bit of Kate’s shell enough for her to show empathy for another human being. But as the film concludes, we see Kate’s own personality—which can be a bit brash and blunt—remain on top of this newfound empathy.

Maddie is not normal, but as the film continues, we alongside Maddie and Kate come to understand that normalcy is such a vast concept that only exists to create a status quo that is harmful.

Maddie is not normal, but as the film continues, we alongside Maddie and Kate come to understand that normalcy is such a vast concept that only exists to create a status quo that is harmful.

The way in which “Family” decides to explore this issue is through the Juggalo community. For those who need a quick lesson, Juggalos are fans of the band Insane Clown Posse (ICP) and they believe in acceptance no matter what. The film’s script was sent to the band for permission before it was made, and the band had cameos in it alongside Natasha Lyonne for a scene which is a re-creation of their Gathering. Maddie befriends a Juggalo, Baby Joker, at a gas station store when Kate accidentally leaves her, which is what spurs this eventual moment at the Gathering. It’s a lot to take in and it is incredibly funny while doing so.

The physical comedy in this film brings it to life because it could be a drama about all of these topics, but you have the natural humor that is in a character like Kate, who is perpetually frazzled and not on top of knowing how to care for a middle schooler who gets nicknamed “Maddie Beef” and prefers to practice roundhouse kicks with her weapons of nature. I don’t want to speak for all the “weird” kids in the room, but that was pretty typical to my own middle school weirdness. Us freak kids, we get Maddie.

I don’t want to speak for all the “weird” kids in the room, but that was pretty typical to my own middle school weirdness. Us freak kids, we get Maddie.

There’s even a moment where Maddie reveals that she doesn’t even feel like a girl most of the time, and you hear her mother tell Kate over the phone that karate (which Maddie sneaks off to during ballet lessons) is for boys, which Kate immediately shuts down. From there, you realize that Maddie has been incredibly gendered throughout her life from the types of activities she was signed up for, which adds to her discomfort in her identity. I found that really revealing about Maddie and a small way that the film tries to speak that it is okay to feel those things about your identity. I loved every comedy gag in the film, down to Kate McKinnon and Taylor Schilling wrestling each other in a bouncy house, but this comedy is something that reassured the weird kid in me that my need to be accepted and my seeming failures at accomplishing that weren’t failures at all.

Kate’s heart-wrenching admittance to Maddie, while in full face paint, that no one is normal and she has none of her stuff together cut to the core as a viewer.

Kate’s heart-wrenching admittance to Maddie, while in full face paint, that no one is normal and she has none of her stuff together cut to the core as a viewer.

Maddie views Kate’s perfect blonde messy curls and her sharp blazers as perfection, and Kate quickly lets her know that her outsides don’t match her insides. Kate hates herself and her inability to connect to those around her, which often leaves her in a position of saying whatever she feels since she has no feelings at stake in offending a coworker, let alone a possible friend.

Not only did Maddie resonate with me, but that feeling of being on top of your game but hated at the same time is something I battled with early as a teen. Kate really served as a way to show what happens to a child like Maddie when they have to grow up too fast as well for reasons that I don’t want to spoil.

But for someone like myself, Kate touched something inside of me. I wasn’t getting respect from my classmates, especially not teenage boys, and that made me realize that it wasn’t worth being respectful in order to get my point across. I proudly accepted myself as the bossy b*tch and that is where we see Kate at in her professional life. I hate that I had that moment in my life already but realizing that once I took care of my mental health, I was able to compartmentalize it much more is so important. Kate has her own small mental health revelation which influences the rest of her choices.

There is one more moment that I can not end without and that is Kate telling Maddie that she needs to try to be normal and that her actions or rather behaviors are what’s causing her to be bullied. When I heard that. I was transported to my own poor choices as a fifteen-year-old telling my friend to give up a hobby to avoid being called names even more. I look back on that moment of me trying to shape them to expectations and societal norms and it pains me because all I did was make them feel more uncomfortable in their own body and experiences.

The film also discusses a chosen family, which for Maddie is the Juggalo community at a point in her life where she feels othered by everyone but them. I relate to a chosen family heavily not because of a lack of acceptance from my own family but as a queer woman. Being a part of the LGBTQ+ community is simply that, a community. I find that I thrive in spaces where I no longer have to condense myself to be palatable for others. When I feel comfortable, I know that I can speak on my Bi+ experiences and not have that be shaped for other’s consumption.

My chosen family is my community in whatever shape that comes in and I treasure my shared experiences with others because of that. Similarly to what I just expressed, the film closes with Kate finding a new sense of comfort and confidence in being who she is. Her blunt outbursts of opinion and rough outer edges are still there, but she knows that she has a family now that were previously estranged, which allows her to expand herself beyond her work.

Family is about the lengths you will go to listen and hear others, not just the blood bonds that you have. Kate and Maddie are each other’s chosen family, and that is poignant.

Family is about the lengths you will go to listen and hear others, not just the blood bonds that you have. Kate and Maddie are each other’s chosen family, and that is poignant.

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