‘The Perfect Family’ Is Seriously Imperfect

May 13, 2012

Kathleen Turner in “The Perfect Family”

If you are a person who is interested in the relationship between the Catholic Church and LGBT issues, you may be tempted to see The Perfect Family, a new movie starring Kathleen Turner.

Don’t.

The premise sounds like it might be a good contribution to the Catholic discussion of LGBT issues.  Eileen Cleary, a devout parishioner (played by Turner) learns that her daughter is a lesbian at the same time that she herself  is nominated for the “Catholic Woman of the Year” award.  Such a set-up has possibility for a reflective movie about conflict between faith, family, and lived experience.

Unfortunately, the movie does not go in this direction.  Instead it mixes over-the-top Catholic caricatures intended to be humorous with failed attempts to make profound statements.

The main character, Eileen, is depicted as a brainless obsessive whose religious observances border on the superstitious and fanatical.  Her behavior is way beyond even the most traditionalist Catholics, and it’s played for comic effect.  Her most egregious line, in answer to a query about what she thinks of her daughter’s lesbian orientation, she blurts out, “I’m a Catholic.  I don’t have to think!”  Satirical? Poignant? Neither.  Just dumb.

Other aspects of Catholicism are equally unrealistic, including the central plot theme that winning the “Catholic Woman of the Year” award will allow the recipient to receive the “sanctifying absolution” of forgiveness of all sins from the only person who can administer it, the Archbishop of Dublin.  Huh?  Not only is such a thing ludicrous, but it is played up so much in the film so as not to be even slightly humorous.

Most offensive is the vicious portrayal of a Catholic nun as a rigid martinet.  Catholic religious sisters have been in the forefront of LGBT equality in the Catholic church. In fact, the recent Vatican attempt to control the leaders of women’s religious communities is motivated, in part, because the sisters have been supportive of LGBT people.  Depictions of nuns as nasty people is such a sixth-grade sort of joke that is, frankly, quite tired by now.

Although the plot includes the element of a lesbian daughter, the film never really examines this issue in any depth.  The mother is opposed to it.  Why? Because she’s a Catholic.  Such one-dimensional depiction does not do justice to any internal or interpersonal conflict that a parent may experience.  Equally simplistic is the magical turnaround in attitude that Eileen undergoes by the end of this movie, with only the most cliched reasons offered.

Why are they still making movies that depict Catholic people as so hopelessly out of step with LGBT issues, when study after study keeps showing that Catholics are more supportive of these issues than any other Christian denomination in the country?  What makes this movie even worse, however, is that it doesn’t even paint an accurate or realistic picture of Catholics who do oppose these issues.  Depicting the opposition as a cartoon isn’t accurate and reflects poorly not on the opposition, but on the people doing the depicting.

I’m not the only one who disliked the movie.  Several professional reviewers have found it to be problematic.  Here’s a sampling from some reviews:

The Los Angeles Times: “Trying for ‘The Perfect Family’ and falling short”:

“Ultimately, ‘The Perfect Family’s’ problem is not the ideas themselves but that there is so little nuance in the way the conflicting sides are laid out. Everything is too neatly black and white, when real life rarely is. The characters are so simplistic in their design, the issues they represent so clearly at odds with fundamental Catholic practice, there is little room for Turner to do much with the roiling emotions she has ginned up for Eileen. It leaves Eileen forever out of sync with everyone around her, a raging religious maelstrom in a sea of gray.”

Christianity Today: “The Perfect Family: What could have been a stirring study of a conflicted woman of faith is marred by easy fixes and unevenness” :

“Director Anne Renton’s first feature film feels hijacked by its agenda. Ironically, it seems to suffer from the same issue that often hurts Christian-made movies—a preachy lesson that overtakes story. In promoting love and acceptance over rules and condemnation, it can be over-the-top, predictable, and heavy-handed. Nothing is subtle, there’s no nuance, the rhetoric is trite, and it ends far too tidily to be taken seriously.

“Tonally, The Perfect Family is like a Hallmark movie without any middle ground; it swings wildly from outlandish comedy to heart-wringing drama. It’s terribly uneven throughout. Surprisingly, Academy Award nominee Turner’s performance is, at times, almost embarrassingly overacted. And other times, she delivers perfect, heart-wrenching scenes. Satirically, the movie can at times hit truth square in the eye and other times, it swings and misses with great aplomb. For instance, Catholic rituals and church politics can be realistically and deservingly jabbed in one scene but in the next, Catholic beliefs and rituals are mischaracterized (like with the concept of absolution).”

Movieline.com: “Kathleen Turner’s a Kick — Up to a Point — in The Perfect Family:

“. . . the tone hovers between mild satire and soapy melodrama. Launched into the space between those two modes, a line like “I don’t have to think, I’m a Catholic!” — Eileen’s response to an accusation of closed-mindedness — falls flat. . . . The Perfect Family seems to resist introspective pit stops, cruising toward its tidy resolution with a host of missed opportunities in its wake. . . . At critical moments Renton’s direction feels a couple of seconds off the beat; often the dramatic center of an obviously dramatic scene . . . never quite materializes.”

The Perfect Family could have been a good film that explores some important issues, but because it relies on tired cliches and stereotypes, it ends up being a dud.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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