“Family Squares” is, at its core, a sensitive and warm motion picture about grieving the loss of a loved one from afar. In the midst of a deadly global pandemic. When no one in the family is allowed to be in the same room as each other.
It’s a situation that, tragically, too many people know all too well, and it’s a smart idea to try to turn that experience into an emotional family drama.
That said, “Family Squares” is also a film about very large Zoom calls with people who don’t all understand how the technology works, and if you spent a lot of time on Zoom in the middle of the crisis — and a whole heck of a lot of us have — you’ll know that it doesn’t always turn out to be a good idea.
“Family Squares” was filmed entirely remotely, with the majority of the film playing out like a Zoom call, and a few scenes filmed by the actors themselves when they were away from their laptops and cell phones. The whole picture has a DIY aesthetic that’s sometimes charming, sometimes amateurish, and sometimes charmingly amateurish. It really does play like a film your grandparents could have made on their laptop during quarantine, for better and worse.
The film stars June Squibb as Mabel, the matriarch of the extended Worth family. At 90 years old, Mabel literally starts the film on her death bed, as she asks her great-granddaughter Cassie (Elsie Fisher, “Eighth Grade”) to assemble her family online for her dying moments. There’s Mabel’s wife Judith (Ann Dowd), and Mabel’s son Bobby (Henry Winkler) and daughter Diane (Margo Martindale), along with grandchildren Dorsey (Judy Greer), Robert (Billy Magnussen), Chad (Scott MacArthur, “The Righteous Gemstones”), Katie (Casey Wilson), and Bret (Timothy Simons), and of course the great-grandchildren Max (Maclaren Laing) and Cassie.
After a tearful goodbye, the family goes about their separate ways, grieving alone until the reading of the will, when Mabel drops in via pre-recorded video, dropping one truth bomb after another. One of you was adopted, try to guess which! Someone’s been embezzling, whoopsie-daisies! And what the heck, there might be secret family treasure out there somewhere, so you might want to invest in metal detectors.
June Squibb may not be in “Family Squares” for long but she’s everywhere, yucking it up and thoroughly enjoying her timely demise. It looks like the only way she could have enjoyed herself more is if she’d made her whole family spend the night in a haunted house. She truly relishes saying lines like, “I gotta get back to being dead!”
The screenplay by director Stephanie Laing (“Irreplaceable You”) and co-writer Brad Morris gives all the characters a full plate, but not everyone gets a prime cut. Ann Dowd gets an incredibly sweet subplot where she enlists a messenger to follow her wife’s body around town, and Elsie Fisher has wonderful scenes as a young person coming to terms with the concept of mortality. But Chad wrote a book about the time he was impaled by a javelin, and Robert appears to be some kind of notorious computer hacker living on the lam, and they just don’t feel like they’re part of the same film.
And then of course there’s the disembodied narrator, voiced by Rob Reiner, who sounds like he was recorded on the cheapest microphone they had. His commentary waffles uneasily between generic platitudes about kinship and jokes that barely qualify as jokes. “Looks like we need a recount in North Carolina!” isn’t a funny thing to yell after you’ve watched a family argument. It only vaguely makes sense. Tom Servo is spinning in his storage bin somewhere.
It’s a shame that so much of “Family Squares” tries so hard to be goofy (there are CGI roosters with targets on them — they’re everywhere — and by the time the imagery is kinda-sorta explained, it’s too late to get un-distracted). When the film allows itself to be intimate, lovely moments occur. Ann Dowd and Margo Martindale, two of the greatest characters actors in this industry, finally have a real scene together in a movie, and it’s a good one! It’s not their fault they had to be filmed remotely, separately — some might even say “Zoom-esquely” — which can’t help but undercut the power of the pairing. It’s like if Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did their big scene in “Heat” over FaceTime; a wallop would not exactly be packed.
Sincere but uneven, professionally acted but amateurishly presented — there’s a lot to like about “Family Squares,” but there’s always something getting in the way of its intended impact. Viewers with similar experiences under their belts may be able to connect with the attempts to dramatize the poignant strangeness of contemporary grief. But most of us will have to dig a little too deeply through the film’s stilted comedy and contrived trappings to make it worth searching for the film’s saving graces.
“Family Squares” opens in US theaters and on demand Feb. 25.