What do child beauty pageants and rampaging, pollution-spawned mutant creatures have in common? Apart from the obvious. (They’re both solid indictments of man’s continuing inhumanity to man, beast and child.) No, the answer is they bring families — particularly dysfunctional ones — together. That is if the World According to Cinema is to believed, which, I hope, it is.
Little Miss Sunshine‘s (2006) roster of dysfuncts is made up of equal part self-flagellating perfectionists and resigned no-hopers. Oh, and a grandfather who is unapologetically addicted to drugs and porn, having misspent his adult life being sensible. The father is a would-be motivational speaker who divides the world into winners and losers, the eldest son has taken a vow of silence (because of Nietzsche — perhaps because he said “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”), the uncle a failed suicide and the slightly podgy daughter star-struck by the glamour of being a beauty queen. The mother, as mothers quite often are in this sort of film, is the only normal one, desperately trying to hold them all together. When young Olive defaults into winning a local pageant (the actual winner falls sick), the entire family take off in a transparently metaphorical broken-down, beat-up yellow minibus. The result is a journey full of comic embarrassment, conflict and the occasional touch of humanity. The ending, I have to say, had me in tears of laughter, caused by equal parts hilarity and an attempt to fend off the excruciating embarrassment of the whole thing. But it leaves you with a wonderful warm feeling. I recommend it.
Gwoemul/The Host (2006), like Little Miss Sunshine, features a scene in which an entire dysfunctional family jump into a moving people-carrier. If reduced to a Hollywood-esque concept, though, the film wouldn’t sound anything like its US twin (it’s Korean). It starts with a (western) scientist ordering his (Korean) assistant to dump a load of highly toxic formaldehyde down the sink and into a nearby river. Almost immediately, a Godzilla-like monster is spawned and goes on the rampage in a riverside park. So what has this got to do with bringing dysfunctional families together? When the youngest member of the family, teen Hyun-seo, who is snatched by the monster and presumed dead, proves to have merely been stored away alive in the creature’s sewage-works larder (she contacts them by mobile phone), the family (disbelieved by the authorities, who are trying to hush up the whole thing by pretending everyone in the area has been exposed to a non-existent disease) set out to rescue her. The trouble is, the family — including the slacker-father who has a tendency to fall asleep at any moment, and an Olympic archer who always loses because she hesitates that little bit too long — hate each other. Like Little Miss Sunshine, the youngest child is the cause that brings them together.
Another interesting thing about The Host is that it has taken the sort of bold genre premise that would form the entire substance of a Hollywood production, and made it simply the background against which a comic family drama is played out. The traditional commercial formula would be to make the authorities who come in to deal with the monster (or some rogue ex-employee called back from self-exile after clashing with the bosses — you know the sort) the centre of the film. In The Host, which makes no bones about casting the western authority-figures as the cause and continuation of all the troubles, the authorities’ attempts to hunt down the creature are secondary, and just get in the way of the family’s hunt for young Hyun-seo. It’s so refreshing to be out of the standard genre box. The Hollywood assumption that an audience’s imaginations would be so swamped by having to deal with one single fantastic idea (a monster) that they won’t be able to handle anything like genuine drama, or even genuine comedy, let alone depth of characterisation, is being challenged at last. What I liked about Serenity (2005) was that, having come already with a fleshed-out background from the TV series (which I never saw), it felt no need to apologise for being a genre film, and simply got on with advancing its story and characterisation, which subsequently gained a bit more than the ordinary depth. Hopefully this is a direction more films will take, as audiences don’t become more sophisticated, but are acknowledged to be sophisticated enough already.