Comedian Jim Gaffigan and most of the rest of the cast make their film debuts in Director Miranda Bailey’s comedy You Can Choose Your Family, which showed at the Zach Theater at SXSW on Sunday, March 18, the same evening a filmmaker named Steven Spielberg was dropping in at the Paramount Theater across town.
As I was Red Carpet for the comedy, I showed up for Jim Gaffigan. I enjoyed this light-hearted movie about a father (Jim Gaffigan) whose son finds out that dear old Dad has a second family across town, complete with a half-sister and a half-brother.
You Can Choose your Family is set in 1992, the year Grunge music became mainstream. Phillip (Logan Miller from “Before I Fall”) is constantly butting heads with his overly-strict father, who doesn’t want him to go to NYU, won’t let him drink beer at home, and is generally a kill-joy.
Young Phillip, whose mother Laura is played by Anna Gun (“Breaking Bad”) is shown in the opening scene sitting in front of a desk. Gaffigan is quizzing him about his parents. Phillip comes right out and says, “My dad is a dick, Sir.”
It is only then that we learn that the two are actually father and son and this is a “pretend” interview that Dad has designed to get Phillip to straighten up and fly right, which, according to his father, doesn’t happen nearly enough.
It is spring break and Phillip, in direct defiance of his father’s orders, sneaks off with his gay friend Lewis (Daniel Rashid) to a neighboring town and a charming lake community where his own family (Family #1) used to vacation. He and Lewis plan to stay with Lewis’ disgusting pothead Uncle Ross (Alex Karpovsky).
Phillip inadvertently sees his father hugging and kissing a shapely young girl at the swimming pool where he and Lewis are hanging out. The two teenagers follow the pair to a house, where it becomes apparent that Phillip’s father, Frank, has a second family, consisting of a teen-aged half-sister and a jock athlete half-brother (Gage Polchlopek as Eddie) and second wife Bonnie.
As you can imagine, things become complicated, as Lewis suggests to Phillip that he use this information to benefit himself. Apparently Frank has always claimed to be “traveling in Japan” and has also often mentioned his good friend Ross. Both are fictitious creations he used to travel freely between his two homes.
When Phillip finally confronts his father about his deception, he hears a story about how Frank “felt trapped” by Laura’s unexpected pregnancy with Phillip and, when he went to break it off with Bonnie (Samantha Mathis), she was also pregnant. Phillip’s response to Dad’s “I felt trapped” excuse is, “You felt trapped so you got out. Sounds familiar,” a veiled reference to Phillip’s desire to leave home and go to NYU in the fall.
Gaffigan’s reasoning (“I knew it couldn’t last. I just thought I’d hang on a little longer while I figured a way out, but I never did.”) seems about as faulty as Phillip’s reasoning often does, but the picnic scene when the two families finally meet each other at something known as the Starling Festival is memorable.
Although Jim Gaffigan is the “name” that got You Can Choose Your Family greenlit, Logan Miller pretty much carries the film with his smart-aleck attitude. His little red-headed sister (Emmerson Tate Alexander), Lib, is also good, and both wives (Laura, Wife Number 1, played by Anna Gunn and Bonnie, Wife #2, played by Samantha Mathis) do a good job.
The music of the time was also good, as selected by Music Supervisor Lauren Mnikus and with an original score by Craig Richey. Cinematographer Yaron Scharf did a nice job capturing the annual starling ballet in the sky, but there really wasn’t that much to photograph, as most of the story is about the father/son collaboration to try to keep the two wives and families in the dark. It is ironic that the son he was least fond of ends up being the family member Frank (Gaffigan) is closest to.
The slutty teen-aged half-sister was not nearly as compelling as most others and Uncle Ross was way over the top.
Also, a plot like this can never end happily for somebody.
During the Q&A that followed, the cast that had just appeared in their first film were asked to raise their hands. Out of 21 people on the stage, most raised their hands. The only person missing from the stage was, of course, the writer, Glen Lakin, whose brainchild this entire film scenario was. (Why does it not surprise me that everyone got invited to the stage except the writer who created everything onscreen?)
Gaffigan and the others were asked if they had improvised their dialogue, and he got a big laugh when he said, “I improvised every line I said. The part was originally written for a woman.”
Why was You Can Choose Your Family set in the 90s? Because of social media making it difficult to have this plot work today and, also, it was when Director/Producer Miranda Bailey’s parents got divorced.
Logan Miller commented that he enjoyed the fact that it was set in 1992, his birth year (he’s 26) because of the music and because. “I would like to know what it was like growing up without cell phones or social media.”
As someone who grew up before there were cell phones, the Internet, or social media, I can tell you that land lines worked just fine, nobody was tracking your every move, Big Brother wasn’t watching and, as for the social media aspects of the Internet, the youth of America weren’t offing themselves in record numbers because they were slut-shamed or bullied online.
Also, we occasionally went outside and actually moved around. We weren’t glued to a large or small screen at all times and we actually spoke to one another on the phone, rather than texting. Also, car accidents did happen, but not because one of the drivers, a teenager, was texting and ran head-on into the vehicle on the other side of the center line, [something which just happened to one of my friend’s parents.]
So, yeah, it was Covered Wagon time in the Valley and we were all, no doubt, completely screwed up by our lack of these modern conveniences, but, somehow, it doesn’t seem that way.
This is an enjoyable film. It isn’t going to win any Oscars (One Gaffigan joke was, “Where do we pick up the Best Picture Award?”) but it’s entertaining and there are a few laughs that most people with a sense of humor will be able to relate to.
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Samantha Mathis, Logan Miller, Anna Gunn, Alex Karpovsky, Gage Polchlopek, Daniel Rashid, Emmerson Tate Alexander.
Writer: Glen Lakin
Director/Producer: Miranda Bailey
Cinematographer: Yaron Scharf
- Acting - 7/107/10
- Cinematography - 6/106/10
- Plot/Screenplay - 6/106/10
- Setting/Theme - 8/108/10
- Buyability - 9/109/10
- Recyclability - 8/108/10