The Dysfunctional Family Genre Gets A Lynchian Twist In Surreal Feature


  • Lucy Kerr delivers a surreal and tense twist on the dysfunctional family genre with Family Portrait.
  • With a combination of natural lighting and tricky sound design, the movie keeps viewers guessing about how a seemingly innocuous family get-together holds something far darker.
  • Despite the captivating atmosphere and direction, the movie’s lack of major story and character development are sure to leave some underwhelmed, even with its short 78-minute runtime.

The art of surrealist filmmaking is one that has become a rare commodity in the modern cinematic landscape, with filmmakers like David Lynch having a more infrequent presence. With

Family Portrait (2023)

, however, debuting writer-director Lucy Kerr looks to revive this mysterious and ominous atmosphere through the similarly innocuous titular gathering. And while it does succeed in creating a bizarre atmosphere that captures plenty of simmering tension, it’s trapped between being a proof-of-concept short film and a feature-length effort.

Family Portrait (2023)


Lucy Kerr

Release Date

October 14, 2023


Lucy Kerr


Deragh Campbell
, Chris Galust
, Rachel Alig
, Katie Folger
, David McGuff

Family Portrait revolves around Katy (Deragh Campbell), who travels with her boyfriend Olek (Chris Galust) to her family’s sprawling property in the woods to take numerous holiday photos together. The film is set at the beginning of COVID, and they want to have as many ready as possible before having to separate from each other. But when Katy’s mother disappears, and she and Olek become concerned about traveling to where they need to, the story becomes a mysterious and time-bending journey.

Family Portrait’s Atmosphere Is A Fresh Twist On Its Concept

Dysfunctional family dynamics are one of the most explored in all forms of fiction, but particularly in film and TV, and we’ve seen a plethora of storytellers offer their own takes on the concept. Whether it’s the Thrombey family at the heart of Rian Johnson’s whodunnit comedy Knives Out, the various versions of the Wang family in the multiversal action-comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once or the bickering siblings of the Altman family in the dramedy This is Where I Leave You.

The increasingly surreal and dreamlike atmosphere of the movie further plays into this original approach on the genre.

With Family Portrait, Kerr offers a uniquely different approach to the genre by setting it in a surreal and unpredictable environment. The tension of conflicting ideals between family members is felt with everything from minor looks to lines of dialogue, though this simmering frustration never builds into an explosion of emotions, keeping us intrigued about whether it will ever happen, or if they will do as many families do in real life and simply keep quiet.

The increasingly surreal and dreamlike atmosphere of the movie further plays into this original approach to the genre. The sudden disappearance of Katy’s mother would normally turn into a story in and of itself, or lead to an unraveling of the rest of the family, as recently seen in Peacock’s Apples Never Fall. Instead, Kerr elects to keep the focus on Katy and how she grapples with the anxiety of the situation. This nicely transitions into the more mind-bending sections of the movie, as we feel just as lost by what’s happening as Katy.

Kerr’s Direction Is Visually Superb & Auditorily Intriguing

In addition to the movie’s overall pacing and structure, Kerr’s approach to the soundscape of Family Portrait is an intriguing delve into the more surreal elements of the film. Beginning with entirely no sound before slowly fading in the chaotic crosstalk of a family gathering to take a picture, Kerr quickly establishes that the visual language of the movie will be just as, if not more, important than the actual dialogue, immediately immersing us in this off-kilter world she’s creating.

The actual direction itself, which is also a credit to cinematographer Lidia Nikonova, is an absolute feast of natural lighting and practical locations. While some may expect a movie boasting a surreal atmosphere to deliver otherworldly color palettes and unnerving imagery, Kerry and Nikonova keep things grounded, even amid the more time-bending moments and bizarre sequences, including a young boy hiding in a crevice of a large tree for no apparent reason. The decision to also keep the camera at a distance feels reminiscent of the eponymous artwork, inviting us to interpret what we will from what we’re seeing.

A Lack Of Character & Story Development Keeps Family Portrait From Being Complete

Despite its atmosphere proving gripping, the biggest setback facing Family Portrait is the lack of any major development for its characters and plot. Not offering any major answers to the questions posed in a story is certainly par for the course in any surrealist project; Lynchian movies, in particular, are better known for how they keep us in the dark on what we experienced. Whether this was Kerr’s ultimate intention for the film or not is unclear, but the ultimate lack of evolution on these fronts is frustrating.

Given the movie only has a 78-minute runtime, some of these frustrations feel like they could have been smoothed out by expanding Family Portrait into a more traditional 90-minute-or-longer movie.

Beyond Katy, Olek and the former’s mom, many of the characters in the family feel largely underdeveloped, and as such feel inconsequential in the few events that unfold over the course of the movie. Brief mentions are seemingly made of prior sibling skirmishes, disagreements about their mother’s mental state and Katy’s potential pregnancy, but are as quickly forgotten as they are initially stated. Katy being our focal point into this family indicates these minimal developments are tied to how she views the topics, but it’s still underwhelming from a storytelling standpoint.

Given the movie only has a 78-minute runtime, some of these frustrations could have been smoothed out by expanding Family Portrait into a longer feature. Though Kerr’s dedication to surrealism would likely still have offered few answers, it could have at least prevented the film from being trapped between being a stylish proof-of-concept short and a fully fleshed out feature.

Family Portrait is now playing in theaters, and will expand to streaming via Metrograph at Home on Friday, July 5. The movie is currently unrated.

Family Portrait (2023) - Poster

Initially presenting itself as a realistic portrayal of a family on an idle but hectic summer day, the film progressively descends into a realm where time and space lose their grip, transforming the family portrait into a solemn and enigmatic ritual of transition.


  • The atmosphere is incredibly tense and wonderfully surreal.
  • Lucy Kerr’s direction is nothing short of beautiful.

  • The lack of major character or story development feels a bit underwhelming.

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