The Talent Given Us

Once upon a time, it was novel for low-budget comedies to embrace the trappings of documentary style (thank you, Christopher Guest). But in the era of so much “reality” TV, what was once refreshing now stinks like a two-week-old episode of The Swan. Andrew Wagner's film The Talent Given Us, however, deftly embraces some of the trademarks of documentary and cinema verité (using handheld cameras and non-actors, and shooting all on location) to effectively blur fact and fiction.

Wagner films an impromptu cross-country car trip with a loudmouthed New York family. The gimmick: They are played by his real family — his parents Judy and Allen, in their 70s, and his two grown sisters, Emily and Maggie.

The impetus of the trip, at least, is pure fiction. Los Angeles resident Emily arrives at the New York airport to visit her parents. But as soon as she gets there, her parents cajole her into taking a trip out to the West Coast, so they can reconnect with aloof son Andrew, a screenwriter. We know the real Andrew is there behind the camera, adding a bit of irony to it all.

Along with Maggie, they pile into a minivan that quickly becomes a confessional on wheels, as the family uses the thousands of miles of travel to sort out years of drama. Nothing is held back. The parents’ infidelity, Allen’s failing health and limp libido, the sisters’ inability to find mates, the source of Andrew’s estrangement, and Emily’s adventurous sex life — it all becomes fodder for disarmingly frank and enthusiastic debates.

There are big moments of hilarity — especially body-obsessed Emily stripping down and getting on all fours to convince her mom that she needs liposuction — but Wagner works more subtly too.

All the familial wackiness is tempered with an undercurrent of divisiveness. The cracks in Judy and Allen’s relationship are showing, and the kids still hold resentment for childhood turbulence.

It would seem a great risk to put your real-life family in the middle of all of this turmoil, especially if Andrew Wagner’s script is closer to fact than fiction. We never know if it is, but he manages to use the family dynamic to his advantage, harnessing the actors’ comfort with each other to give the film a sense of fearless honesty.

In real life, as well as in the movie, the Wagner sisters are actresses, having trained at prestigious New York and L.A. institutions. The Wagner parents are not trained, but they hold their own, often upstaging their brood.

As the family’s journey continues, whether the fictional Andrew will be there in Los Angeles, let alone be open to the visit, seems an inconsequential detail, especially because, in reality, we know he’s running this show.

What’s more moving than the thin “where’s Andrew?” storyline and the underlying question of what’s real and what’s fake is the uninhibited look into a family’s inner workings, all laid out in the open. As the highway takes the Wagners closer to Los Angeles, the meltdowns and tender moments intensify. They divide and reunite, and somehow seem stronger for it.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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