Peace Arch Entertainment // 2008 // 86 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // December 9th, 2009
Dogs. Donkeys. Denial. There's no place like home.
Novelist Brian Worthington (Shawn Hatosy, Public Enemies) is returning to his hometown of Staunton, Virginia to spend Thanksgiving with his family. His brother Kenny (DJ Qualls, Hustle and Flow) is a wannabe photographer who needs to get his life in order, sister Erin (Cameron Richardson, Alvin and The Chipmunks) is suffering a breakdown after becoming a single mother, and mother Dottie (Ann Dowd, Marley and Me) is trying to keep the family together.
However, the real test for Brian is trying to reconnect with father Frank (Tom Bower, Appaloosa), who never forgave his son for leaving. In the midst of all this, Brian runs into a high school friend named Allison (Nikki Reed, Thirteen) who becomes more than a welcome relief to all the family chaos.
While it covers no new cinematic ground as far as depicting small-town families, Familiar Strangers is a pleasant, easy to digest comedy-drama. Avoiding condescension at every turn, screenwriter John Bell makes the proceedings as realistic as possible, with each of the characters given distinct personalities. Director Zackary Adler has a nice eye for detail, and makes good use of central Virginia locations. While the film never really grabs you on an emotional level, its earnest tone and sincere performances make it quite watchable.
On the downside, the film is awfully slow, even though the run time is only 86 minutes. As naturalistic as everything is, there isn't enough juice to raise it above ordinary. The cast certainly gives it their all and each actor gets their moment to shine. The relationships, however, are bland and undernourished, thus resulting in little dramatic conflict. There's a subplot regarding Frank's dog which doesn't exactly ring true, and Allison's early exit from the picture makes no sense. Finally, it can be seen a mile away that Brian's estranged relationship with Dad will be mended.
Phase 4 presents Familiar Strangers on DVD with adequate results. The anamorphic image has some grain and an overall softness due to the low budget nature. Otherwise, flesh tones are fine and black levels are deep enough. There's very little music, so the 5.1 Surround track is rather generous, but welcome all the same. It's a dialogue-driven film, and every word is discernible. Closed captioning is available. Optional Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Extras are confined to two featurettes, both well done. The behind-the-scenes segment runs 16 minutes and is fairly stimulating, combining interviews with location shooting. While the bulk of the film was shot in Staunton (where I live), there were parts filmed in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg as well. The 12-minute "making-of" piece contains more interviews; with the producers, writer, director, and cast members all contributing information.
A close call, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13