Writer and director Michael Glover Smith’s third feature film demonstrates his prowess in understanding the delicate balance of relationships with “Relative.” Taking place in the North Shore of Chicago, we meet an older couple, Wendy and David (Karen Frank, Francis Guinan) whose son Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts) is graduating from college. There’s an obvious age disparity as the couple readies for a celebratory party with the family and discuss their future plans. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to just focus on themselves. This is the pivotal relationship that supports the spiraling whirlwind that crashes the event, launching each sibling to confront their own lives and dependency upon their parents.
With heartbreaking finesse, Wendy and David’s Northshore lifestyle and abode has been the safety net for all of their children, but the expense and inability to start their own next chapter in life needs to start. Wendy, fearful of her children’s reactions to this news, is in emotional turmoil as we watch her walk that tightrope with each adult child. Wendy and David are always there for their kids, no matter their situation. They give everything they have, metaphorically and literally, to help their children succeed, but it is at their emotional and developmental expense. And within this realm, each adult child wrestles with how Mom and Dad’s news will impact them.
Benji, ready to start his own life has his issues with his eldest brother Rod, an unemployed ex-husband and father living in his parent’s basement. Evonne (Clare Cooney) and her wife Lucia (Melissa DuPrey) create their own explosive situation as the pair share their news, and adding into this already fiery situation, Benji brings home a girl who has swept him off his feet, Hekla (Elizabeth Stam). And this lucky girl witnesses the typical family dysfunction on full display.
Smith takes such simplistic elements of life and creates a complicated and layered story that allows you to relate to each character, no matter your age, gender, orientation or race. And somehow, Smith tackles it all with ease and grace. Taking place over a concise weekend time period, the everyday preparation and tasks allows each of the characters to introduce themselves, their situations, and then grow with one another or in many cases, explode to find a conclusion.
Dialogue is key in this type of a film and Smith nails it. Standout scenes create indelible images and emotions such as Benji and Rod’s midnight argument and Wendy and Evonne’s heart to heart. Of course, life is full of irony and humor and Smith intertwines this into his family story as well. Stam seems to carry the comedic weight with her energy and natural vibe that fills every corner of the screen. But it is Evonne and Lucia’s story that leaves you wanting more. Their lives are complicated and we are immediately drawn to these actors and how they portray their characters. Perhaps Smith will open that door with a sequel.
Relationships are messy and family makes them even messier. “Relative” exemplifies just what happens behind closed doors even when those doors are in the affluent North Shore of Chicago. Take your pick with which character you most relate and see yourself in “Relative.” It’s truly a gift.