Let us count the ways a family unit shapes children. In As They Made Us on Kanopy, a streaming service available with a public library card, Mayim Bialik outdid herself in a directorial debut. She has directed, produced and written a gripping drama about a Jewish-American family.
Candice Bergen and Dustin Hoffman turn in fine performances as the parents. That their ages belie the vim and vigor of younger days on the silver screen simply adds to Bergen and Hoffman’s acting chops. They have a breadth and depth of fleshing out unhappy characters whose disabilities and disappointments weaken them.
I wondered about what their lives growing up must have been. Bialik does not go there. That would have blurred the film’s clear focus.
Dianna Agron rocks it as a faithful daughter. This character’s eyes are wide open to her mom and dad’s mental health issues, strengths and weaknesses. That consciousness comes with a cost.
One thing is clear. This girl, then woman, has thick skin. In growing up and as a single mom, she is the target of her parents’ harsh treatment on more than one occasion. Empathy and patience are her virtues. The Bergen character lacks both, preferring streams of invective.
None of this deters the daughter from staying in her parents’ lives as she and they age. In fact, Agron’s character draws closer to her father as his fatal disease does its dirty work, a big part of the film. His mental and physical demise turns out to be a mixed blessing in an irony of life and death for this family coping with mental health issues; it seems, on a daily basis.
Such challenges can and do make family living upset-free, an aspiration that occurs with the frequency of snow in August. That way of life takes an emotional toll on the body and soul, a process Bialik shows and tells in the film, using flashbacks effectively.
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Simon Helberg plays the brother and son. To say that he has a rocky relationship with his father is putting it mildly. Helberg’s character, who becomes a renowned academic, diverges from his sister’s relationship with their parents. She remains there for them.
He flees for comfort, his career, spouse, and their kids. Who can blame him?
In brief, Agron’s character has built the emotional strength to withstand the chaos of her parents’ behaviors, as a kid, and later a divorcee with two young sons and an annoying ex-husband. That is no mean feat.
Helberg’s character lacks his sister’s intestinal fortitude. He does however pay homage in a moving scene at his father’s side as the man’s life ebbs away.
This is a memorable moment in the two men’s lives. It would not have happened without the intense effort of the Agron character to bring her brother to their father’s bed as he lay dying.
According to Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, in his 1878 novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The family unit dramatized in As They Made Us is a case underscoring Tolstoy’s contrast.