Here at Latent Images, we are passionate about leading student discussions on film and media. As part of a new ongoing series, each month we will be highlighting a different selection of favorites from our team of staff writers and contributors. Monthly selections will alternate, varying on different kinds of topics — from actors, to film scores, to noteworthy moments — giving students the space to discuss, recommend, and praise as they please.
This month, we asked staff writers to discuss some of their favorite films about family conflicts and reunions. Both recent discoveries and classics, these films show cinema’s capacity to depict complex and intricate relationships in the family unit.
Shiva Baby, 2021, dir. Emma Seligman, United States
It seems like very few directorial debuts in recent years can qualify as tour de forces. Nevertheless, Shiva Baby, directed by Gen-Z first timer Emma Seligman, is an exception to that rule. It is one of these rare gems that make you want to bow down and worship every inch of its brilliance from head to toe. The film follows college student Danielle (portrayed by the one and only Rachel Sennott, whom you might already have seen in Bodies Bodies Bodies) who is being confined at a family shiva. There, other than being interrogated by her relatives about her future and diet, she is forced to confront her ex-girlfriend and sugar daddy. Standing only one hour and eighteen minutes long, the film excels at emotionally “torturing” its audience with its enduring anxiety, which has made it feel twice as long. In that sense, the film is relatably suffocating, and perhaps even traumatic to those who are all too familiar with unpleasant family gatherings or identity struggles. I can’t explain how high the stake is in a tightrope act of this caliber: one joke wrongly timed, one dialogue poorly written, the drama falls apart like a castle of glass. Yet, Shiva Baby, in all its agonizing glory, dances in and out between its quirky, satirical one-liners (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps–and not in a good way!” exclaimed one of Danielle’s relatives) and stressfulness comparable to psychological horror films (in fact, the ghostly and discordant violin solo in the background was said to be inspired by Rosemary Baby) with the ease and grace of an Olympic figure skater. – Richard Zheng
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, 2020, dir. Charlie Kaufman, United States
Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel has been met with mixed reviews with varying perspectives, from those who praise the incomprehensibility and those who meet it with frustration, longing for the more straightforward psychological terror provided in the source material. And though I can understand frustration in film adaptations diverging from the source material, Kaufman’s adaptation carries the deeply unsettling core of fear, isolation, and snowed-in drive towards insanity into the silver screen format in a film that is brilliant and horrific. The most terrifying part of the story was not in the explicit blood or scary images, but in the helplessness of the narrator, and Kaufman takes this further and fully disjoints her from reality. He completely washes away the line between reality and the extremely loosely-gripped consciousness of the protagonist, as small details given during the visit change constantly, dribbling in the unsettling nature that will emerge with full force in the third act. It evolves into a surrealist nightmare with lynchian dream logic, an extremely far cry from the meeting the parents shtick it opens with. It’s depression and hopelessness depicted like a nightmare unimaginable, more purgatorial than temporarily dreamlike. The cold, dark snowstorm never ends. What starts as a cute trip to meet the parents is revealed to be a psychological horror show beyond comprehension, and I was left nauseous with distress (this is an extremely unenjoyable watch) and in awe of Kaufman’s creative work here (it is worth it). – Karenna Umscheid
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix.
Benny’s Video, 1993, dir. Michael Haneke, Austria/Switzerland
Known for his bleak, unsettling portrayals of social mechanisms and violence, director Michael Haneke spins a twisted story of violent media consumption and the middle-class family in his thriller, Benny’s Video. Arno Frisch delivers an ice-cold, disturbing performance as Benny, a fourteen-year-old video enthusiast who repeatedly watches tapes depicting violent animal death. Amidst extended shots of the nuclear family’s mundane life, Benny eventually chooses to murder a stranger on film. Haneke lingers in discomfort, showing the murder tape in one static shot to dig into the darkness that violent media and emotional repression have on the human psyche. After a straight-faced Benny reveals his homicidal secret to his parents by playing the tape for them at the end of the second act, Haneke chooses to take an original spin on the “sociopathic, homicidal child” horror story. By making the parents’ reaction one of immoral concealment and family loyalty instead of horror and condemnation, Haneke reveals how the social expectations of the middle-class family unit can turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. You find yourself shivering as Benny’s father passively questions his son—”Did anybody see you together? Have you spoken to anyone about it?”—not out of concern for the victim, but out of self-preservation. Benny’s parents almost become the most interesting to study, as psychologically complex characters who will do anything to salvage their child’s future and a sense of peace. As a master at depictions of agonizing social dread, Haneke keeps your mind permanently stuck in front of Benny’s VCR, watching in the dark alongside the silent onlookers as the teenager shows proof of the unforgivable—at the ultimate family gathering gone wrong. – Casey Richards-Bradt
Benny’s Video is available to stream on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.
The Wedding Banquet, 1993, dir. Ang Lee, Taiwan/United States
The first of his “Father Knows Best” trilogy, Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is a clever combination of the romantic comedy genre with transnational and intergenerational anxieties. The film follows a trio of a New York-based couple, Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), and one of Wai-Tung’s tenets, Wei-Wei (May Chin), caught in a facade of romantic relationships. When Wai-Tung’s parents from mainland China come to visit, he pretends to be in a relationship with Wei-Wei to please his parents, who have pressured him to marry a Chinese woman. The Wedding Banquet shows Lee’s deftness at expanding the limits of genre film, as seen in films like Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film has poignant and sentimental ideas of family dynamics and accepting cultural differences, culminating in stimulating material that is still beholden to the rom-com genre. Lee’s film was a breakout success of Asian- American cinema in the Nineties and the awards circuit, achieving honors including a nomination for the Academy Award for Best International Film and the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Wedding Banquet is the product of a master filmmaker setting his gaze on an occasionally detested genre, and Lee’s film shows the heights that romantic comedies can achieve. – Julian Hart
The Wedding Banquet is available for streaming on Pluto TV and Tubi. It can also be rented or purchased on Vudu.