Family (2019)

Nathan Rabin’s pop culture travelogue You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is one of my favorite books of the past decade – an incredibly empathetic portrait of two pop music subcultures who are too-often, too-openly mocked by outsiders: Phish fans & Insane Clown Posse fans. Of those two groups, it’s the juggalos who could use the empathy boost the most in their public esteem, especially after the mockery that accompanied the release of the Insane Clown Posse single “Miracles” (you know, the one with the magnets). To outsiders, juggalos are unfashionable, uncultured, low-intelligence dorks with a penchant for violence & a hideously tacky horror-clown aesthetic. The FBI even recently went as far as to classify them as a gang. By spending time amongst them on their own turf (and unexpectedly becoming a juggalo of sorts himself), Rabin discovered a different side of the much-mocked subculture. He found them to be a wide, dependable network of societal misfits who offer a chosen-family safety net to anyone who needs it. The public perception of juggalos is that they’re low-life, hedonistic criminals with no moral code. In practice, they’re shockingly wholesome and bonded by a strong sense of solidarity.

If you’re not fully convinced that gaining greater juggalo empathy is worth reading an entire book, maybe watching the 85min mainstream comedy Family is an easier sell. Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling stars as a family-negligent businesswoman whose self-absorption drives her niece to run away to become a juggalo. The film opens with a genuine, in-the-wild “You’re probably wondering how I got here” gag as Schilling stumbles through the annual juggalo convention (and open-air drug market) The Gathering in a clashing business suit & clown makeup lewk. While that introduction teases that the film will be fully immersed in the juggalo deep-end, most of its Insane Clown Posse content is saved for its final half-hour, once her wayward niece has already been indoctrinated into the “gang” as a full-blown juggalette. The movie’s eventually really sweet about juggalos as a subculture & a Family once it gets there, though, with all of the drug-addled, Faygo-soaked horror clowns banding together to help find a missing child who might be in danger. It’s an oddly touching portrait of an unfairly maligned community, one that feels very much true to how juggalos are portrayed in Rabin’s lengthier defense of their collective character.

Before its juggalo redemption arc hits its full stride, Family is fairly low-key in how it distinguishes itself as a modern comedy. Only Schilling’s presence as the family-ignoring, business-obsessed lead who eventually learns her lesson about what’s really important in life stands out as anything special, and only because Schilling pushes that archetype’s usual narcissism into an unusually dark extreme. Before it stumbles into uncharted territory at The Gathering, the film reminded me a lot of The Bronze in how it looks & acts like a normal mainstream comedy in all ways except in how it allows its lead to be incredibly selfish & cruel without worrying about whether audiences will find her “likeable.” Schilling’s absurdly self-absorbed lead is the perfect POV for a juggalo skeptic, as she’s skeptical of anything & everything that’s not a lucrative business opportunity or a tall glass of white wine. She’s deeply relatable to any of us who’ve found ourselves lashing out as closed-minded cynics who see everything in the world we’re not immediately interested in as total bullshit (I’ve been there, at least), and there’s something remarkably charming about her learning to be more open-minded & considerate from a group as low in her estimation as pot-smoking clowns who consider listening to novelty rap a lifestyle.

If Family falls short as a juggalo story, it’s in not affording as much of an inner life to the juggalette-niece character, played by Bryn Vale. She’s broadly characterized as an awkward social outcast in search of an empowering identity, so it makes sense that she’d find comfort in the all-accepting, outcast-embracing juggalo Family. A movie that focused entirely on her journey & inner-life could have played like an Insane Clown Posse-themed variation on Eighth Grade, which might have been even more fascinating than the low-key mainstream comedy we get here instead. Family gets by just fine distinguishing itself as is, however, establishing a peculiar, R-rated wholesomeness that’s just as darkly funny as it is oddly sweet. Schilling’s juggalo-skeptical audience surrogate is a perfect encapsulation of most people’s initial attitudes toward uncool, unfashionable subcultures on the wrong end of the poverty scale, and it’s just as satisfying to watch her learn to empathize with weirdos that far outside her comfort zone as it is relatable to watch her in full-cynic mode in the film’s opening act. It’s not as comprehensive of an argument for juggalo empathy as You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, but it’s just as funny & much more succinct.

-Brandon Ledet

2 thoughts on “Family (2019)

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