US artist Lucy Kerr makes her debut with an unnerving Texas drama starring Deragh Campbell
Dir/scr: Lucy Kerr. US. 2023. 78 mins.
An unnerving, quietly haunting debut from American writer-director Lucy Kerr, Texas-set enigma Family Portrait is a semi-inscrutable miniature that could be the next in a long line of US indies to use a prestigious European festival as launchpad to international exposure. Premiering in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at Locarno, it stars Deragh Campbell, a performer often notable for her fragile intensity in works including Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 Ft (2019), which she co-wrote. Here she plays Katy, who has returned home to semi-rural Hunt, TX with her Polish boyfriend Olek (Chris Galust) for a late-summer visit.
A low-key fever dream of casually confining domesticity
The comfortably rambling home of her parents (Silvana Jakich, Robert Salas) is temporarily filled with around a dozen members of their extended clan. What passes for a plot revolves around a photograph that will supposedly be taken for the family’s all-important annual Christmas card. Katy is impatient to get this chore out of the way as she intends to depart immediately afterwards — but, to her mounting frustration, nobody seems to share her urgency at all. Adding to her anxiety is the fact that her mother seems to have wandered off; a disappearance, or something more banal?
More concerned with mood and implication than conventional narrative, Family Portrait sketches its casually conservative, affluent milieu in convincing detail: this is a house that turns out to contain not one but two hardback copies of Barbara Bush’s 1994 autobiography, A Memoir. And the film itself plays rather like sequences that are being patchily and unreliably recalled some while after the event.
Time seems to be looping around itself; what is in theory late morning looks rather more like dusk. Towards the end of the feature’s brief running-time dream-logic starts to prevail: after Katy impulsively goes for a swim — fully clothed — in the nearby lake, nobody remarks on the fact that she’s walking around sopping wet. The whole thing might well be playing out inside the protagonist’s head; could it be deliberate that her accent is clearly non-Texan, and occasionally betrays her Canadian origins?
Kerr crafts a low-key fever dream of casually confining domesticity; nearly every conversation seem to focus on someone’s awful ailments or sudden demise, heightening the subtly sinister ambience that eventually incorporates doomy notes of dread.
The dialogue (often eavesdropped and/or overlapping, Altman-style) can play an important role, including an excessively on-the-nose exchange when Katy’s father ruminates on the unreliability of photographic evidence. But at several key junctures — including throughout the extended, attention-grabbing opening sequence — voices are entirely subsumed beneath sound-effects of susurrant rumblings and the wind blowing among the trees.
The audio design by Andrew Siedenburg and Nikolay Antonov is thus an inescapably crucial part of the film’s impact. The visual palette of Lidia Nikonova’s cinematography tends to be much more restrained, though Kerr’s choice of camera-placement is often intriguingly oblique. Action will also from time to time occur simultaneously in several planes receding down the Z-axis; the viewer soon learns to pay close attention to seemingly innocuous background events.
What all this adds up to, if anything, is a matter of subjective interpretation. And many will find Family Portrait’s air of arch, evasive reticence off-putting, even frustrating and exasperating. But despite touches of affectation that creep into both her directing and screenwriting, Kerr overall displays sufficient confidence, skill and stylistic distinctiveness to mark her down as a name to watch.
Production companies: Insufficient Funds NSF, Conjuring Productions
International sales: Lights On, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Megan Pickrell, Frederic Winkler
Cinematography: Lidia Nikonova
Production design: Tim Nicholas
Editing: Karlis Berts
Main cast: Deragh Campbell, Chris Galust, Rachel Alig, Katie Folger, Robert Salas, Silvana Jakich