The Talent Given Us

The Talent Given Us

What an odd little movie The Talent Given Us is. Strangely interesting, in a quirky way.

Filmmaker Andrew Wagner made this film about his own family, but in more of a fictional than documentary style. Not as fictional as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Jack Benny Program, where real people sort of play themselves, but certainly not pure documentary.

That’s part of what’s intriguing about this movie, however, is trying to figure out to what extent we’re watching this real family, and to what extent we’re watching actors playing the part of people who happen to have the same names.

Is it all really them? (“OK, just ignore the camera and do and say what you would if I weren’t even here. Just be yourselves.”) Is the whole thing meticulously scripted from start to finish? Are the depicted events happening for real? Did they, or something very close to them, happen in real life in the past and are now being recreated for the camera? Are they pure fiction?

My impression is it’s some combination. Certainly the main storyline is either a recreation or totally made up. (It’s a road movie. His family is driving from New York to Los Angeles to look him up. But in reality, I read later, he was with the camera crew filming them in the car and their motels and such the whole way. So obviously they weren’t really driving out to see him.) However, my guess is he gave them that set up, and maybe a few other particulars along the way, and just told them to improvise and be themselves within that framework.

So not “What would these fictional characters do if they were on a road trip like this?” but “What would you do if you were on a road trip like this?” And then he let the conversations and the events take their course, and filmed whatever happened.

If they’re not being themselves but are playing characters, they’re pretty damn good for a bunch of amateurs. It certainly feels like a real family.

It’s a very dysfunctional family on the surface, but at a deeper level that’s more ambiguous. They’re somewhat dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy at all levels, but it’s one of those families that’s apparently cobbled together enough compromises and workarounds to get a lot of their needs met and maintain some level of sanity despite everything they’re doing “wrong.”

It’s a Jewish family that keeps nothing inside—fighting, complaining, expressing the whole gamut of emotions, and talking about sex, very personal health issues, and everything families rarely talk about openly, least of all with a camera present. The parents talk about their affairs, their daughters talk about how their home life growing up landed them in therapy, the mother announces she wants a divorce after 46 years if her husband and the family can’t give her a good reason against it, one of the daughters details how liberating it’s been for her to be a sexual submissive and engage in various fetishes, and on and on.

Some of it’s pretty bizarre stuff. You wonder what’s more unlikely: that they would do and say these things for real knowing they’re on camera and this is being made into a movie, or that they would willingly follow a script and do and say all these bizarre things as characters with the same name as them that many people will assume is them? If you had no interest in S&M role playing fetishes, would you let your brother talk you into playing yourself in a movie and saying you were into all that stuff? If you were mostly impotent and had little libido due to medication, and your wife was openly unhappy about that, would you want all that to be shown in a movie? And again, if those things weren’t real, would you be willing to pretend they are in a movie where you and your wife are playing yourselves?

I have to admire this family for being this open, or this filmmaker for somehow persuading his own family to air so much of their dirty laundry like this.

Mostly it’s funny, but they hit on a lot of interesting and important emotional issues as well, and there’s plenty to think about in a more serious way.

The mother is mostly a loving and supportive person in her own strange way, yet has a controlling nature that manifests itself in part through occasional strategic temper flare-ups. That pushes the wrong buttons in me, because I don’t deal well with people who know that as a last resort they can always get people to give them their way if they have a tantrum.

The father is not as emotionally demonstrative, though he’s certainly not inhibited. He can play the authority figure here and there, but the default for him is to bend to the will of his wife.

Certainly his physical defects are the most attention-grabbing thing about him. His doctor says he probably had a small stroke or series of strokes at some point. As a result, he only has partial control of his mouth. It tends to hang open, his tongue sometimes rolls lazily out of it, and his speech is seriously slurred. (He especially is hard to understand with his family. When he’s speaking to strangers, he apparently makes more of a conscious effort, as he articulates quite a bit more clearly.) He also has a bit of a shuffling gait, and mention is made of the fact that he falls periodically.

So he’s not in full control of his body anymore, but especially his mouth. When he’s around people, he often self-consciously places his hand in front of his face to make his mouth less visible.

It would be a very odd disability to write for a fictional character, especially in a comedy. It would be like you’re laughing at someone for talking funny after a stroke.

But in this case, that’s his dad, and you take him as he is. He has a visually distracting and somewhat displeasing disability, and he has a speech impediment, but that’s reality. This movie is about (sort of) real people. Real people don’t have only flaws that happen to be convenient for movie storytelling, or that all movie audiences will be comfortable watching.

I like that about The Talent Given Us. Some of the events and such are presumably fictional, but there’s something more refreshingly genuine about the raw ingredients of this movie than about most works of nonfiction. A documentary about this family would probably be fairly interesting, but would almost certainly be more dry and take a bit more effort to sit through. With this odd hybrid of fiction and documentary, you get most or all of what would be valuable about a documentary, but it’s more watchable and has more laughs.

The Wagners are a likable bunch in their peculiar way, at least as much as can be expected with people whose personality flaws and physical flaws are so constantly on full display, and this way of capturing them turns out to be a likable film.

I just wonder what in the world they thought of this when they saw the finished product.

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