Though functioning within the vacuum of cliché—estranged daughter Kyra (Andrea Wenzl) returns home for her father's funeral where siblings share wine, pot, vinyl, childhood tchotchkes and eventually secrets that reopen old wounds—Marie Kreutzer's assured debut, The Fatherless has more on its mind than middling melodrama. Be it the nature of family as prison, or the consequences of rigidly applied ideological ideals generationally, this middlebrow drama, which takes place in the single countryside locale of a dilapidated familial estate, is aware of its cultural and sociological context as well as its characters as formed individuals.
Structured as somewhat of a mystery, not unlike Bart Freundlich's mostly overlooked dysfunctional family drama, The Myth of Fingerprints, this slow-building character piece vacillates back and forth in time to expand on the next generation effects of a polygamous, free-loving, hippie lifestyle on their children. We know that Kyra was expelled from the commune—presumably when their ideals inevitably imploded—but the reasons why don't come until we understand the various perspectives of the many children, each trying to establish their own identity in a world removed from the unsustainable concepts they were raised on.
In such, the questions here are that of how much freedom, or lack of structure, can a child handle, in addition to assessing the concept of family as prison or imposing force. And while an analysis of modern day effects of a late '60s ethos could easily become didactic or even pedagogical, forcing deliberately opposed moral talking points into various characters to generate conflict that guides, Kreutzer is careful to put her characters first.
Each of these adult children is rounded out and formed beyond mere character types, having strengths and weaknesses, as well as occasionally conflicting notions of self. It's because of Kreutzer's writing, which builds organically from a banal situation juxtaposed with fleeting flashback context, as well as the solid performances from the invested cast that this engrossing, rich family dynamic reads as a narrative unto itself, beyond lessons in cultural theory.
Even if limited by the same naturalistic sensibility that gives the film its integrity, The Fatherless still works as a captivating adult character piece not unlike The Celebration or Summer Hours or even Little White Lies.
The Fatherless screens on Friday, November 16th at 8:30pm at the Royal. (Novotny & Novotny)