Oi Polloi

Films and Things: Dysfunctional Families

Published: Thu Jun 07 2018

Cinema has always been fascinated by the inner-workings of the family unit.

Be it a surrogate family or the family one is born into, filmmakers from Yasujirō Ozu all the way over to Michael Bay have all tried to comprehend what ‘family’ truly means… some with better results than others.

And, more often than not, writers and directors have been attracted toward stories concerning families on the ‘dysfunctional’ end of the spectrum.

After all, no one wants to watch people getting along for an hour-and-a-half, do they?

With that in mind, let’s have a look at some of the best dysfunctional families that have ever graced the silver screen…


Starting off with a classic, here’s Jack Nicholson (in a pretty powerful bomber jacket/roll-neck combo) in Bob Rafelson’s masterful Five Easy Pieces.

For those who haven’t seen it, Five Easy Pieces is the story of oil-rig worker Bobby Dupea (Jack), whose blue-collar life (which belies his privileged childhood as a piano prodigy) is uprooted when he learns his father is dying.

Five Easy Pieces is widely considered to be one of the crowning jewels of ‘New Hollywood’. Armed with the tenants of the French New Wave, these films broke the rules traditional Hollywood had set up regarding character development. In short, directors and writers were bored of the all-American-good-guy types of yesteryear and wanted to tell stories about realistic people – the kind you’d probably encounter in everyday life.

That’s not to say they were always the kind of people you’d want to encounter in everyday life though – unless you’re the type of person who’s a-okay with berating incredulous roadside diner waitresses for being unwilling to accommodate your order…


Speaking of the French New Wave, here’s probably the defining film of the movement, and one of my favourite films - François Truffaut’s incredible The 400 Blows.

The 400 Blows concerns itself with Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), a misunderstood Parisian teenager, who frequently falls foul of his parents due to his rebellious behaviour.

As you can probably tell from the photo above, Antoine’s parents’ methods of punishment are considerably crueller than just taking his Xbox off him for a week – his father has him imprisoned and tried as an adult and his mother has him sent to a juvenile detention centre.

In The 400 Blows, Truffaut is definitely on the kids’ side when it comes to depicting their struggles. This might have something to do with the film being heavily auto-biographical of Truffaut’s early life. In fact, when his real-life mother saw the film, she fully disowned him, and the two never spoke again.

Who needs a mother’s love when you’ve made one of the greatest films of all time?


Next we’ve got the late great Harry Dean Stanton in one of his few starring roles – Wim Wenders’ hauntingly beautiful Paris, Texas.

The plot of Paris, Texas focuses on Travis (Harry), an amnesiac who, after mysteriously wandering out of the desert, treks across the American Southwest in an attempt to reconnect with his brother, his seven-year-old son and his long-missing wife.

Paris, Texas covers a plethora of themes, but it’s hard to deny that at its core, the film is about family… or rather the psychological damage caused by the breakdown of a family unit. After all, poor Travis spends the majority of the film wandering about the Texan desert in a daze, barely uttering a syllable, clearly tortured by guilt after abandoning his wife and young child.

While Paris, Texas isn’t a-laugh-a-minute chuckle-a-thon, it certainly is a fascinating character study, a painful exploration of family, and perhaps most importantly, a mint film. That washed out baseball cap Travis sports is pretty smart too.


Now, here’s Catherine Breillat’s affectionately named Fat Girl, an unapologetically bleak, pitch-black ‘comedy’ and (hopefully) one of the last films you’d ever want to watch with your grandmother.

Fat Girl focusses on Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), the titular ‘fat girl’, who confronts her attitudes to sexuality when her sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) embarks on an affair with a much older Italian student while on a family holiday.

While notorious for a veritable smorgasbord of grotesque, violent and offensive moments, Fat Girl isn’t a run-of-the-mill shock fest in any sense – in actuality, the film is a pretty bang-on study of the complicated relationship siblings have.

Anyone who has brothers or sisters knows how quickly you can go from being best mates to battering each other with 2×4 slabs of plywood. In that respect, Fat Girl is a poignant and realistic representation of siblinghood that rarely gets the time it deserves on cinema screens these days.

If you’re not into authentic representations of siblinghood, this film also features a painfully awkward, explicitly brutal 20 minute sex scene… if that’s something you think you might be into, I wholeheartedly recommend Fat Girl.


Right, let’s end this with something a little more light-hearted, shall we? Here’s The Darjeeling Limited, directed by captain symmetry himself, Wes Anderson.

In The Darjeeling Limited, three American brothers (Jason, Owen and Adrien), who haven’t spoken to each other in the year that has passed since their father’s death, attempt to embark on a spiritual train voyage across India, in order to ‘find themselves’. Needless to say, things don’t quite go to plan.

It’s fair to say pretty much any Wes Anderson film could have made it onto this list. From the bad dads of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to the difficult children of Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes has pretty much dedicated his entire filmography in service of examining families that don’t really get along.

That’s not to say all of Wes’ films are the same – each tackles a different faucet of family life. The Darjeeling Limited deals with three sons and their failure to cope with the death of their father and the resentment each still harbours toward each other because of it. And as is the case with any of his films, Anderson explores these rather ‘loaded’ themes with insight and humour.

Perhaps if Wes’ film career ever takes a dive, he’s got one foot in the door being a family counsellor at least…
Right, there you have it: some of the best worst families in cinematic history. Hope you enjoyed reading all this film-related gibber, and if not, I hope it’s made you feel guilty about not calling your folks once a week.