FAMILY BUSINESS If this month’s Sundance Film Festival is any indication, Magnolia and American Beauty represent only the first rumble of a dysfunctional-family avalanche at U.S. theaters. The lineup for Park City’s annual high-altitude powwow (from Jan. 20 to 30) dishes up more abuse, alienation, and all-around suburban rot than Thanksgiving with the cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Among the festival’s hot tickets are The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut about a group of death-obsessed sisters in a strict home; Rob Schmidt’s Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, which brings Dostoyevsky’s existential crises to the cul-de-sacs of California; and Wonderland, Michael Winterbottom’s mosaic of stories about battling parents and kids in South London.
The most devastating offering just might be Just, Melvin, James Ronald Whitney’s brave and buzzed-about documentary chronicling a family’s years of alleged abuse at the hands of Melvin Just — Whitney’s own grandfather. ”He molested my mother at a young age,” says the filmmaker, 36, ”and many other family members.” Despite the chilling subject matter, Whitney promises that Just, Melvin works as entertainment, not just education. ”There are times where I hope the audience laughs,” he says. ”They will see me laughing, they’ll see my family laughing. We want them to be able to laugh with us.” If there’s a reason for the deluge of dysfunction on the indie landscape, Whitney theorizes: ”Most families have skeletons in their closets.”
Possibly the most juicily anticipated guest at Sundance’s dinner table of clashing kin is Emilio Estevez’s Rated X, in which the erstwhile Brat Packer and his brother, Charlie Sheen, scheme and spar as Artie and Jim Mitchell, San Francisco’s infamous Cain and Abel of porn. Sibling rivalry, director Estevez says, remains a universal Hollywood theme — on and off screen: ”It ain’t easy being in a family, man. It ain’t easy being brothers.” Although he initially hesitated to make Rated X — worried that the Sheen clan’s real-life tabloid picaresque might overshadow the movie — he eventually decided to turn that troubled history into a positive. ”I was afraid that Charlie would be accused of playing himself, quite frankly. And so was he,” Estevez offers. ”But we said, ‘Damn the torpedoes, we’re going to explore this.’ What better way to meet it than to meet it head-on?” In the end, says Estevez, making Rated X ”brought us closer together than we have been in probably 10 years.” Let the healing begin.