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Family Fundamentals (PG)
DeepFocus Productions
Official Site
Producer, Director, Writer: Arthur Dong
Cast: the Mathews family, the Bremner family, the Bennett family
Rating: out of 5

Shouldn’t this scene take place at the end of the movie? It’s almost Valentine’s Day as Brett Mathews, the gay son of a Mormon Bishop, and estranged from his family for two years as a result, returns home at their request for a reconciliation. Arthur Dong, a documentarian ( License to Kill, Coming Out Under Fire) accompanies him, with the Mathews’ knowledge, to record the event. Brett passes through a deplaning tunnel that is covered with multi-colored paper hearts to emerge into the arms of his family. Unfortunately, after the briefest of shots, that is virtually the last we see of them, and not because this is a happy ending.

Within hours of his arrival, Mathews’ family refuses to participate further in the film unless Brett agrees to be deprogrammed to “cure” his homosexuality. They also insist that Dong’s film must take an anti-gay stance or they won’t agree to appear in it. Brett and Dong reject their ultimatum, but how can they continue making Family Fundamentals without this fundamental family?

These shocking events force the writer/director and his subject into a similar dilemma. Each must make what he can out of refusal, rejection, and lost opportunity. Dong uses the family’s absence as a poignant commentary about their relationship with their son. Brett’s mother makes one more brief appearance as a pair of hands holding scissors as she cuts Brett’s hair, and his father appears, from the waist down, sweeping up the clippings. Then they disappear from view altogether. Other family members have their faces digitally blurred to protect their identities, as if they were actors in pornographic film who did not want to be recognized. “I feel like a fly on the wall in a shadow,” says Brett, as Dong ingeniously films him solitarily wandering the family homestead, without his family, in one scene after another.

They are not the only ones who face such frustrations. In fact, everyone in Family Fundamentals, straight or gay, flexible or fundamentalist, parent or child, ultimately shares the same quandary: the fragility and the resiliency of the need to love and be loved in the face of untenable differences.

Family Fundamentals interweaves two additional stories with Brett’s. Kathleen Bremner, her gay daughter Susan, and her grandson David face the stress that results when Kathleen and Susan work very different sides of the fence about gay issues. Kathleen, a Pentecostal, runs a support group for parents with gay children who believe, as she does, that their children have joined the equivalent of a cult. Their gay children, of course, believe the same thing about their parents. Susan becomes an outspoken gay activist.

Perhaps the most mind-bending story is that of Brian Bennett, a gay Republican whose father-son relationship with flaming homophobe Congressman Bob Dornan, for whom he worked as chief of staff for years, is essentially destroyed when Bennett comes out of the closet. They had once been so close that Bennett had lived as a member of Dornan’s family for six years, hiding his sexuality all the while.

Family Fundamentals is unfailingly absorbing as the love-hate contradictions toxically proliferate. Brian remembers coming out to Bob as a loving scenario. “Dornan said, ‘I have always thought of you as my son, do you think this would make a difference?’” and kisses him on the cheek. But Dornan recalls the incident differently in a radio interview, downplaying the kiss and claiming he castigated Bennett’s sexuality to his face.

Dong himself insistently tells the gay children in the film that their families really do love them, only to be met with pained hesitation or disbelief. The movie truly succeeds in putting the audience, with full feeling, into the midst of these jagged contradictions.

Truthfully, I also felt disappointed by some aspects of Family Fundamentals. The challenge of focusing on a tension that has no apparent satisfactory resolution occasionally makes the movie itself seem stuck, presenting essentially the same predicament again and again. Each narrative highlights the raw border these families occupy between love and rejection. But the inability of any of them to change the situation, as truthful as all three standoffs may be, creates the impression that, despite its dramatic events, the film has nowhere left to go because it faces the same impasse as its subjects.

There is also much less exploration of the nature of the parents’ pain than of the children’s. Since Mathews and Dornan refused to be interviewed, we see Brett’s and Brian’s sorrows in intimate detail. Only fundamentalist Kathleen discusses her disturbingly double-edged beliefs on camera. In a bizarre twist on motherhood, she compares homosexuality to dealing with a disobedient child: “You still love that child anyway. You can’t stop them because they have their own free will.”

Dong is no biased propagandist and it’s not his fault if Dornan and the Mathews refused his offer to air their views. But the result is that any liberal-leaning viewer of the documentary remotely familiar with these issues (like me, for example) may simply find his or her own entrenched anti-fundamentalist sympathies reinforced. I honestly felt that I didn’t learn enough about the fundamentalists in the film to significantly question my own assumptions, and I wonder if a fundamentalist would have a similar response!

In addition, the gay children in the film aren’t really pressed about some of the potentially disturbing contradictions in their own beliefs, while the parents’ politics are frequently questioned. Sure, Brian manages delightfully to “explain” how he can be gay and a devoted Republican. (“We need to be in a party that doesn’t want us.”) The additional reasons for his devotion to a party that frequently leans to the right about other issues, and which may make him less sympathetic to liberal audiences in particular, never come up. Nor does the audience hear why Brett was interested enough to join the armed forces, a notoriously conservative group, from which he was discharged due to his sexual orientation. The movie gets on Katherine’s case for denying that her beliefs have political consequences (“Stop asking political questions, we want to show them Jesus’ love!”), the treats the gay children as if their sexuality is the only thing that politically defines them.

Family Fundamentals offers a fascinating portrait of family love stretched to the breaking point. Why not test what will probably be the largely liberal, urban market audience for this film by presenting some aspects of the children’s beliefs that might cause discomfort? Where do those “more flexible” boundaries start to give way? How would I respond, for example, if my child decided to become a fundamentalist Christian who hated gays? It’s worth reversing the circumstances to consider the limits of anyone’s “tolerance.”

—Ellen Whittier


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