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

The Overnight (2015)

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fourstar

Usually, filmmakers have a tendency to keep their dark comedy & their sex romps separate. Full-blown sex comedies are usually mindless entertainment more concerned with raunchy gags than existential contemplation & while a black comedy might lighten the mood with an occassional sexual diversion (last year’s sadistic Cheap Thrills comes to mind), it’s rare that sex is its main focus. Even the recent raunch fest Wetlands, which I absolutely loved, kept its dark streak separate from its hedonism, a difficult task for a movie mostly remembered for its ungodly volume of on-screen semen. There might be a reluctance in blending the sexual with the menacing both because it’s awkward to take sex seriously & because sexual menace is difficult to play for a laugh for reasons that should be more than obvious without explanation.

In The Overnight, we have a surprisingly successful homogeneous blend of the black comedy & the sex romp, one where both elements are fused together completely instead of played off each other for a contrasting effect. The movie strikes a consistently terrifying tone through its depiction of underhanded sexual coercion, but somehow never loses grasp of the sillier raunch tangents you’d expect in a typical sex comedy. The effect of this powerful combination is that the sex gags are twice as funny as they’d normally play, thanks to the way they relieve overbearing tension of the the film’s sexual menace. In a lot of ways The Overnight follows the typical party out of bounds story structure of classic black comedies like The Exterminating Angel & Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where in-over-their-heads guests feel compelled to remain at a social function even though the mood has soured, but the four characters at the center of this particular party out of bounds & their surprising tenderness for each other are unique to the genre. It’s a very well-written example of a very familiar story that I have a huge soft-spot for.

Besides the deft balance & gradual escalation of the razor sharp script, The Overnight‘s strongest asset is its cast. Adam Scott & Taylor Schilling are fantastic as the befuddled North Westerners struggling to decide if their Los Angeles party hosts are just having a California-style good time or if they’re swingers trying to take their newfound friends to bed. Jason Schwartzman & Judith Godrèche steal the show as the film’s sexual menace, making both sly & overt sexual advances through maneuevers as simple as a hand on a knee and as ludicrous as an art studio packed with abstract paintings of buttholes. It’s difficult to decide through most of The Overnight whether the L.A. couple is taking advantage of their more uptight out-of-towners guests or if they’re apparent sweetness is genuine. The tension between those two competing readings is a great dynamic and both tones could be read in some of the film’s best scenes, like in a stoned, strobe-lit dance party or in a literal dick-measuring contest by the poolside. It’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness that what lingers in your mind after the credits is not the film’s individual sex gags, but rather the implications of the relationships that form between the film’s two central couples. It’s both an equally fun & terrifying experience, as well as a must-see for fans of Jason Schwartzman at his most mischievous.

-Brandon Ledet