Written by Michael Clawson
Atom Egoyan’s strange and fascinating sophomore feature Family Viewing premiered in 1987, two years before the watershed for independent film that was Sex, Lies, and Videotape‘s debut at Sundance 1989. Family Viewing might not be anywhere near as well-known or historically consequential (I haven’t heard of it being considered as such, at least), but the themes it probes clearly echo those found in Steven Soderbergh’s first film. Released at the height of the VHS era, both movies reflect the technological moment in which they were born, and meditate on how the creation and consumption of moving images might inform how intimately we connect and relate to each other (or fail to). That said, where Sex, Lies, and Videotape contains warmth and sensuality, Family Viewing is dark, uncanny, and sometimes almost comically absurd, with a faint current of sadness running beneath its surface.
18 year-old Van (Aidan Tierney) lives in a condo with his father Stan (David Hemblen) – their rhyming names fits with the movie’s overall peculiarity – and Stan’s girlfriend Sandra (Gabrielle Rose). According to his dad, Van’s mother deserted them when he was young. The movie opens in a nursing home where Van regularly goes to visit his maternal grandmother Armen, who has lost the ability to speak. It’s at the nursing home that Van meets Aline (Arsinée Khanjian, who Egoyan went on to marry and cast in many of his films), a phone sex worker whose mother shares a room with Armen.
At home, Van argues that Armen ought to be living with him and his father, an idea that his dad doesn’t entertain. Scenes at the condo are shot as if we were watching a sitcom, and deliberately rigid acting by Tierney, Hemblen, and Rose reinforces that feeling. While the emotional distance between Van and his father seems vast, Van is close with Sandra to an eyebrow-raising degree; their faces come so awkwardly close to each other when they talk, it’s as if they’re on the verge making out. We come to learn that Stan has a lust for making sex tapes with Sandra that verge on sadistic, and is taping over home videos from Van’s childhood as he feeds his habit.
Van and Aline become more involved with one another after Aline leaves town for a stint with a client; in an unsettling sequence seen through the eye of a surveillance camera, we watch her engage with the client in a hotel room. Aline’s mother passes while she’s away, and Van takes it upon himself to see to her burial, while also devising a scheme that allows him to bring his beloved grandmother into his care. The film then morphs into something of a thriller after Stan catches wind of his son’s maneuvering and hires a PI to track Van down. The movie’s lurid streak crests when Van discovers something disturbing on his dad’s dirty home videos.
To swap Sex, Lies, and Videotape out for a completely different point of reference, Family Viewing’s odd and troubling vision of emotionally empty domesticity sometimes brought David Lynch’s Rabbits to mind. The cool temperature does rise a bit by the end. It looks like Aline, Van, and Armen might be on the brink of becoming a makeshift family, one with genuine feeling exchanged between its members.
Family Viewing Trailer