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“Family Squares” Is COVID-Era Filmmaking Done Right (Review)

Image courtesy of Screen Media

I should start with a confession: I really do not like “COVID movies.” I spent the first 6 months of COVID in a small Manhattan apartment with a newly two year old son and a pregnant wife. These are not times in which I’m anxious to re-immerse myself. I appreciate the inventiveness of the DIY filmmaking aesthetic that led people to strive to remain creative while cooped up at home, but there’s a certain unreality to it all. The films all feel slightly off: they feel somehow limited by the circumstances. All of a sudden movies that once would have had scope are rendered as chamber pieces, or, worse, we end up found footage-style movies filmed primarily over Zoom and cell phones. I have just found it all very off putting.

So when I say that Family Squares is worth your time, it comes from someone who really has to work to engage with this sort of storytelling. I think only three other pandemic movies are of particular note: Host, a short Shudder film about a digital séance, Language Lessons, a very sweet movie about companionship through grief from Natalie Morales, and Steven Soderbergh’s recent excellent thriller, Kimi. They all feel like they use the pandemic in ways that create opportunity for heightening the narratives, instead of merely as a device or an impediment around the periphery of the primary story.

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Family Squares is primarily a story told through big family Zoom gatherings as relatives gather to say goodbye to their ill grandmother played by the ever wonderful June Squibb (Nebraska). In the wake of her passing, it is revealed that she left behind a few videos to say goodbye to her relatives, videos which serve to stir the pot of long dormant family tensions and secrets.

I remain frustrated by the limitations of COVID-style filmmaking, but writer/director Stephanie Laing does all one can to make the proceedings watchable. The format necessarily requires characters to monologue and exposit their emotional states, but when it’s actors of this caliber it’s easy to forgive a bit of overwriting. The acerbic wit Laing must have sharpened directing and producing Veep bubbles to the surface in delightful waves. When one relative quips that fellow Veep alumnus Timothy Simons’ character looks like he just walked out of the woods with The Wicker Man, it gave me the best sort of dark laugh the best episodes of Veep used to provide.

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I cannot help myself but to list off the cast because the assemblage of talent here is really special: Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Judy Greer (Arrested Development, Halloween Kills), Scott MacArthur (Halloween Kills), Billy Magnusson (Game Night, No Time to Die), Sam Richardson (Veep), Casey Wilson (Happy Endings), and Henry Winkler (Barry). For me the standouts, as they usually are, were Ann Dowd (Mass, The Handmaid’s Tale) and Margo Martindale (Justified, The Americans). Both are such splendid performers that their scenes were the ones that felt most removed from the strictures of a Zoom film. They manage to convey so much genuine human emotion while staring into a computer screen.

Just watching these actors banter with one another was a simple joy – an extended online gaming sequence between Simons, Magnusson, and MacArthur felt just like a couple of brothers busting each other’s chops. The good natured spats among the relatives felt true. That the emotional beats can sometimes feel a bit forced feels like the direct result of circumstances beyond the performers’ control. If you appreciate the craft of acting, it’s impossible not to derive some happiness from spending time with a cast of performers as talented as this.

Image courtesy of Screen Media

Family Squares will be available in select theaters and on digital streaming platforms tomorrow, February 25, 2022.