Façades and Filmmaking in ‘Family Portrait’ from Lucy Kerr

Deragh Campbell as Katy in Family Portrait, directed by Lucy Kerr.

It is hard to believe the first ten minutes of the drama film Family Portrait are choreographed. A seemingly endless litany of characters flit on and offscreen as they parade to the lake in casual chaos – running around, hanging back for a partner, or picking up the dog. Katy, our anchor amid the confusion, pushes everyone forward as the ominous sound of a train builds in the background. The camera switches to the family, still moving, framed head on in portraiture style. 

We never actually see this picture, which will eventually end up on the back of the family Christmas card. The picture serves as the forward momentum of the film. Lucy Kerr’s Family Portrait, now streaming through the Metrograph, is not about plot as much as the exploration of the languid feeling of a morning of a family reunion in Texas at the onset of COVID. The cast of characters include the father, his four blonde daughters, and their partners and children. They need to be wrangled. They play tennis or lounge on deck chairs while Katy looks for her missing mother in order to take the photo. Mom hasn’t been seen since she announced their step-cousin’s death days after leaving the hospital. Hushed discussions of a new kind of disease lurk underneath the calm exteriors.  

Lucy Kerr constructs the scene

In Family Portrait, the family’s inability to address the loss, wounds, and violence at the foundation of their lives creates a nausea of inaction,” Lucy said in a Q&A following a recent premiere at New York City’s Metrograph theater. “The photograph is rendered an empty gesture, a symbolic, futile attempt to uphold a false fiction of prosperity.” 

Lucy explicitly explores the idea of façade and constructed image in much of her work. Her short, Crashing Waves, is about a stuntman who goes over a cliff, exploring the hidden dimension of what it takes to produce an image. The family portrait, as we will come to realize, is just as constructed. 

“I think it’s kind of a southern thing to need to present a prosperous image. The importance of the image. The importance of the family standing and smiling,” Lucy said. “It’s this image that represents his lack of conflict.”

The same interior/exterior notion, however, pervades in the film’s dialogue and scenes. They exhibit a stilted ‘stupor’ (one of Lucy’s guiding words) instead of concern. Two of the husbands lay on the porch talking about coffee machine monitoring in the office. Under the porch, the young girls poke the eyes out of dead fish. The mood is warm and sleepy. The film’s ‘conflicts’ – COVID, the mother – feel more like momentary blips, easy to forget. 

Deragh Campbell as Katy in Family Portrait, directed by Lucy Kerr.
Click image to enlarge.

“The film exists in an unusual timespace, where one might not be sure what is really happening, or if anything is happening at all, if time has passed or not,”  said Lucy. “And so, as you watch it, try to just let the film wash over you, sensing rather than understanding.” 

Family Portrait takes an intellectual approach to storytelling

This, however, seems like an unusual ask for a movie so rooted in the technical aspects of filmmaking. Her film is designed to be appreciated cerebrally. We get long, lingering shots of the father adjusting his teeth, the mother seen through an obscuring screen. It feels like an extended sequence of scene-setting that never quite comes to a close. The shots linger for minutes on end, prompting us to contemplate the artistry behind their construction. Lucy explicitly attempted to shoot dialogue in unusual ways. We often only see necks and collarbones instead of faces and lips. 

“Thinking about framing in general was a big part of the film,” Lucy said in her Metrograph Q&A. “What’s not in the frame, and what’s maybe in the back of the frame.” 

Lucy reframes the first sequence at the end of the film. It has a sense of life to it, as if there is always something happening just off screen in any direction. This is a wonderful piece of directing, displaying the potential of Lucy’s style to create a revelatory new kind of realism. In other instances, however, it feels like unconventionality for unconventionality’s sake, aesthetic appreciation in exchange for pacing. When, midway through the film, a shot of Katy walking in the woods extends for minutes upon minutes without any change, it is hard for our minds not to wander. 

Lucy Kerr draws inspiration from her own family

Lucy’s real life inspired the notion of the family picture. The Kerrs are known for their themed Christmas cards. The project spawned from the time she set up a camera to record while her family got in frame for their own photo, a sequence that inspired the continuous first ten minutes of the film. Her grandparents’ house in Texas served as the film’s location in the sequence. The red album of cards from years previous is from the real life Kerrs. 

“My mom is very obsessive about taking Christmas Card pictures,” Lucy said. “On the back of the picture, there’s always the family just standing smiling. So in this film, that’s what the family was trying to take.” 

The first minutes of the film are a revelation of naturalism, then, depicting life exactly as it is. This appears to be one of Lucy’s reasons for focusing on otherwise inconsequential shots – why wouldn’t you show the father picking at his teeth? He would do it in real life, ‘plot relevant’ or not.  The further the film goes on, however,  the more it feels like a motivation we have seen before. Contemporary independent films have embraced a slower pacing in favor of a more ‘realistic’ sensation. Lucy appears to be part of an oncoming wave of new avant-garde filmmakers. 

It may seem strange to watch a ‘period’ piece about COVID, when it feels oh-so-recent. Lucy, however, proves that we can think about that time, and filmmaking itself, through an artistic lens. We can uncover new layers underneath it. The facade has been, at least, momentarily, exposed. Maybe this is why she never shows us the finished photo. 

© Catherine Sawoski (7/5/2024) FF2 Media

Headshot of filmmaker Lucy Kerr by Alex Abril.

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Watch the trailer for the film.

Family Portrait is now streaming online via Metrograph.

Read an interview between Metrograph and Lucy Kerr.

Check out Lucy’s website with information on her past projects.

Catherine has covered Metrograph events for FF2 Media in the past. Check out her interview with Sarah Kernochan!

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: A close-up of Deragh Campbell, who plays Katy, in Lucy Kerr’s Family Portrait. Image provided by the Metrograph theater in New York City. Cropped by Sue Hwang for FF2 Media.

Middle photo: The full still of Deragh Campbell in Family Portrait. Image provided by the Metrograph theater in New York City.

Bottom photo: Headshot of filmmaker Lucy Kerr by Alex Abril. Thanks to Metrograph publicist Kaila Hier. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: avant-garde, Deragh Campbell, Family Portrait, Female Filmmaker, Lucy Kerr, Metrograph, New York City, NYC, Streaming

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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