It’s being sold as a family comedy, and certainly the approach to “Familiar Strangers” is lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek. But don’t let the ad campaign mislead you. The movie, brought to the big screen by the Charlottesville-based Cavalier Films and currently playing at The Visulite in Staunton, has a depth to it that you don’t normally see this time of year.
The story revolves around Thanksgiving at the Worthington home and the return after a three-year absence of eldest son Brian (Shawn Hatosy), whose departure to the big city strained his relationship with his father, Frank (Tom Bower), who had hoped that Brian would one day take over the family’s Downtown Staunton hardware store. Brian is instead pursuing a career in writing, though things aren’t going too well on that front, even as he trots around with his first book, a technical trome on electromagnetic energy that he concedes won’t be read by anybody.
At least he has something going on for himself. Younger brother Kenny (DJ Qualls) is on his way to ne’er-do-well status as an aspiring photojournalist in need of money for yet another online course to get some meaningless certificate, and sister Erin (Cameron Richardson) is trying to pick up the pieces from a failed marriage that has left her with quite the hair-trigger temper.
Mom (Ann Dowd) and Dad, meanwhile, are struggling with a home life that has Dad focusing too much of his time and energy on his dying dog and Mom basically living in denial over the dog and her children’s misdoings and the whole lot of things.
Sounds pretty much like your family at Thanksgiving, doesn’t it? Throw in some donkey basketball for an opportunity for bonding, and you have the makings of a Feel Good Fest. To give “Familiar Strangers” credit, it’s not as if everything is wrapped up tidily at the end so that you go home feeling like the Worthingtons are one big happy family for happily ever after. Screenwriter John Bell and director Zackary Adler create characters with a reality to them that you don’t normally have in these kinds of movies.
So there’s that reason to see “Familiar Strangers,” and then for local moviegoers who just want to gawk at dare-I-say familiar backdrops, well, there’s plenty of reason on that front. Downtown Staunton gets a lot of play, as does the Rockingham County Fairgrounds in the donkeyball scenes, and the Stuarts Draft area serves as the setting for the shots of the Worthington family home.
The movie is rated PG-13 for a few scenes with strong language.