Here's something you don't see every day: a movie in which Juggalos – those fanatical face-painted followers of Insane Clown Posse – not only play a major role in a motion picture, but are treated with a modicum of respect, even as they're frequently the butt of jokes. That angle is what makes writer-director Laura Steinel's Family a hoot when it should feel familiar, since the story is typical of family comedies – R-rated family comedies, that is.
Kate (Taylor Schilling, Orange Is the New Black) is a buttoned-up, self-loathing, no-nonsense senior vice president at a hedge fund. She has zero tolerance for anything that impedes her professional success. So when her estranged brother (Eric Edelstein) asks her to watch his 11-year-old daughter, Maddie (Bryn Vale), for a few days, Kate's initial reaction is a firm "No."
After a serious guilt trip from her sister-in-law, Kate agrees to babysit. (How estranged is this family, by the way? Kate doesn't remember Maddie's name or her brother's home address.)
And thus begins Kate's light-comedy path to redemption, the ol' ah-family-ain't-so-bad-it-leads-to-personal-growth routine that we've seen countless times before (Home for the Holidays, Baby Boom, The Family Stone, Uncle Buck). Fortunately, Steinel counteracts the genre's saccharine tendencies with lots of outrageous situations and sharp dialogue. For example, when Maddie complains that kids at school call her names because she wears a cape, Kate says, "If you want to run around looking like the Burger King, then kids are going to make fun of you."
It's an unkind thing for an aunt to say to her miserable niece, but it's funny, and Schilling's comic timing is strong enough to make Kate come off as maladroit in social situations rather than a total asshole with a complete disregard for another person's feelings.
I'd like to tell you the Juggalo gag, in what turns out to be a major plot point, is a big surprise, but its introduction in Family is one of the movie's major stumbling blocks. Family opens with a scene straight out of a J.J. Abrams TV show – you know, when the episode begins with the ending and then flashes back to the beginning – so we know from the first moment that Kate will end up chasing Maddie around a Gathering while they're both covered in face paint.
Fortunately, what happens at the Gathering – shot at a real Gathering, by the way – mostly makes up for Steinel telegraphing the story's ending. And despite some feelings of story déjà vu, Family mostly works. It doesn't take itself too seriously, even when it tackles a few of the movie's more serious subjects, such as bullying, parenting an awkward child, and Kate's tendency to treat her co-workers as pawns in a chess game rather than humans with lives outside the office. Schilling is the glue holding this contrivance together, and she pulls it off. Helping her is Vale, as well as Bryan Tyree Henry as Sensei Pete, Maddie's well-intentioned sort-of karate instructor.
Bonus: Kate doesn't go through a complete transformation, but just enough of one to make it seem as if the movie hasn't sold out her character for the sake of delivering a feel-good ending. It's the kind of transformation someone might actually have after a life-altering experience, even if it's spurred on by the Gathering of the Juggalos.