Someone returns to their hometown to deal with urgent family business after years away, and in the process reassesses their life, reconnects with estranged relatives and becomes a more well-adjusted person. That could describe the plot of literally dozens of indie movies that make the rounds at film festivals every year, and the generic title Family Obligations doesn’t do writer-director Kenneth R. Frank’s debut feature any favors. But there’s promise in Frank’s work, even if Family Obligations is full of cliched plotting and crude, borderline incompetent filmmaking. With a bigger budget and a more seasoned crew, Frank could deliver a genuinely affecting drama, despite telling an overly familiar story.
With Family Obligations, though, Frank’s only asset is his script, which may be rudimentary from a plot standpoint but still showcases some strong character work and heartfelt dialogue. The cynical office worker who needs to learn to appreciate life is Peter Steele (Chris Mollica), who seems to exhibit no emotions when dealing with the death of his father, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in seven years. Peter just wants to quickly sell his childhood home and get rid of his father’s possessions, but he’s waylaid by his uncle Frank (Frank Failla), who’s dying of cancer and had been relying on Peter’s father for rides to the doctor and other basic needs. Even though Peter has even less of a connection to Frank than he did to his father, he feels obligated to stick around and help the cranky old man.
It doesn’t hurt that Frank’s neighbor Melanie (Chandler Rosenthal) is a friendly, pretty single mom who seems interested in Peter, and Peter spends at least as much time with Melanie and her precocious daughter Mia (Eleanor Brandle-Frank) as he does with his uncle. Peter and Melanie’s tentative courtship is as predictable as Peter’s warming relationship with Frank, a curmudgeon who mostly wants to be left alone to die in peace. Peter and Melanie have a number of deep, revealing conversations that the director shoots with maximum awkwardness, often robbing the moments of their intended resonance. Peter opens up about his difficult childhood and his troubled relationship with his father while he and Melanie stand next to a busy road, the sounds of the passing cars constantly distracting from their intimate interaction.
The entire movie is full of sound problems that likely resulted from poor planning, and that roadside scene isn’t the only time the picture shakes because something seems to have accidentally jostled the camera. Mollica and Rosenthal do generally solid work (and Mollica’s occasional stiffness may be meant as a character trait), but the supporting performances range from passable to embarrassing, and there is at least one instance of an actor glancing directly at the camera. The sets are underdressed, the lighting is unnecessarily harsh, and the blocking is often crowded and clumsy. The score and songs by Benjamin Morse sound like coffee-house open-mic rejects.
Those are all common problems for no-budget indie films, but they add up to undermine the story here, weakening the moments that should be the most powerful. As Frank’s condition worsens and Peter and Melanie’s relationship deepens, Frank (the filmmaker) makes some smart dramatic choices that avoid treacly sentimentality, and the ending is nicely understated. It’s shakily shot and soundtracked by a terrible song, but at least the intention comes across.