The relationship between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most volatile ever filmed. But there’s always something intriguing about failed relationship that make it hard not to watch. Fractured families are a frequent topic in cinema, probably because with the prevalence of divorce and tense family dynamics, nearly everyone has a story they can relate to. Aside from the streaming recommendations below, recent films [in theaters or on home video] that explore strained family relationships include The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Carol, Anomalisa, and Midnight Special.
Melancholia [Lars von Trier, 2011]
Available on Netflix
The divisive Lars Von Trier directs Melancholia, an epic exploring a newlywed couple already off to a bad start when they arrive two hours late to their own wedding reception. Justine [Kristen Dunst] rejects even the most basic aspects of her own wedding to Michael [Alexander Skarsgard], and her overbearing family isn’t helping. Justine’s sister Claire [Charlotte Gainsbourg] begs Justine to set aside her depressive attitude for this one day but proves unsuccessful. The film’s second half focuses more closely on the relationship between sisters Justine and Claire, and their opposing reactions to the presumptive end of the world. Melancholia is an emotionally difficult film, but a relatively approachable one in relation to the other works of its controversial auteur. It is also a unique and incredibly rewarding film.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Michel Gondry, 2004]
Available on Netflix
A painful breakup leads Clementine Kruczynski [Kate Winslet] to erase the memories of ex-boyfriend Joel Parish [Jim Carey]---once Joel realizes his ex’s actions, he also goes through the experimental procedure. The film beautifully details their relationship as Joel’s memories are erased, in a world that could only be created by writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry. As Joel’s memories begin to slip away, the couple keep finding their way back to each other. Depending on how you read the film’s ending, it is either a statement on the enduring quality of love or the prelude to another disastrous relationship. In addition to a unique and surprising story, Eternal Sunshine benefits from tremendous cinematography by Ellen Kuras, and a stunning soundtrack by Jon Brion.
Take This Waltz [Sarah Polley, 2011]
Available on Netflix
Sarah Polley’s second film as a director has a much quieter failing marriage at its center but is no less devastating. Michelle Williams stars as Margot, a woman on a business trip who unexpectedly meets Daniel [Luke Kirby] in a picture perfect “meet cute” scenario. They immediately click despite the fact that Margot is married to nice, but boring Lou [Seth Rogen, in one of his first primarily dramatic roles]. By some sort of chance, we find that Daniel lives across the street from Margot, tempting a sweet but temporary romantic fling into something more serious. Marital discord erupts, forcing Margot to make the ever-pressing romantic decision between a hot spark and simple stability. It’s not exactly a unique premise, but Polley’s graceful direction and Williams’s superb performance make Take This Waltz a deeper emotional experience than expected.
The Savages [Tamara Jenkins, 2007]
Available on SnagFilms
The Savages tells the story of two siblings, played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Wendy and Jon are forced to reconnect while helping to care for their estranged father [Philip Bosco]. At times darkly comedic while always bleakly depressing, the film fully explores a complicated relationship of adult siblings that have to come together to help a parent who never helped them. Abandoned by their mother at a young age, their only parental figure was physically and emotionally abusive, making it difficult for the now adult siblings to face their past and personal contentions. It’s a simple story with great great emotional themes fully realized by great performances from Linney and Hoffman.
The Station Agent [Tom McCarthy, 2003]
Available on Hulu
Spotlight director Tom McCarthy’s debut film, The Station Agent explores chosen family. Peter Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, whose passion for railroads finds him working at the model train store of an old friend. After an unexpectedly death, Fin loses his job but is bequeathed a small property. He anticipates solitude in his new found home, but quickly becomes deeply involved in the lives of his neighbors, Joe Oramas [Bobby Cannavale] and Olivia [Patricia Clarkson]. The Station Agent goes on to explore their relationships, discovering the painful histories that brought this odd group together. Though they aren’t related by blood or by marriage, their love for each other---and more importantly, given the theme of these recommendations---their fall outs are no less emotionally resonant.
In addition to the streaming list, if you’re willing to splurge on a great find, these films featuring fractured families are available for digital rental across most platforms:
Amour [Michael Haneke, 2012]
Blue Valentine [Derek Cianfrance, 2010]
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem [Ronit & Shlomi Elkabetz, 2014]
Ordinary People [Robert Redford, 1980]
The Royal Tenenbaums [Wes Anderson, 2001]