Together Again for the First Time (2008)


In the world of filmmaking, the dysfunctional family is mined for both comedic and dramatic gold but ever since the beginning of the 90's ushered in a new era of cynicism, a new sub-genre emerged-- namely the dysfunctional family holiday movie. Whether it provides slapstick and ridiculous fodder for Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid to play off of in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation , the multicultural Thanksgiving film What's Cooking? or in the wickedly painful Christmas dramedy The Family Stone, it's become a popular formula for box office success.

Likewise, at least two upcoming theatrical releases-- Four Christmases starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn and Nothing Like the Holidays with Debra Messing and John Leguizamo are taking a similar approach. And while those have the benefit of the Hollywood marketing machine and A-List talent behind them, I was a bit more skeptical when I received a review copy of another dysfunctional holiday film, director Jeff Parkin's Together Again for the First Time.

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However, I couldn't have been more surprised or delighted by this cute little indie film that begins on similar terrain but builds into a moving climax and above all, remains far more likable than the cruel Stone. Based on a play written in 1985 which debuted at Brigham Young University by author Reed McColm, the origins for the film version of the play began to take shape when McColm and his good friend Jeff Parkin were pursuing advanced degrees at USC.

Although it is set in Spokane, Washington in the dead of winter, it was filmed in Provo, Utah in the middle of summer. This Christmas comedy about the blended Wolders-Frobisher family comprised of people who as the box promises "don't like each other very much," finds everyone coming together after seven years for an old fashioned family Christmas, after having avoided each other since their parents' marriage.

We first see our main character Roger (Kirby Herborne) narrating from a bus terminal in what we realize will be the middle of the the film as he takes us back to the roots of what was obviously a horrific reunion, which began when he and his British girlfriend Brenda (Larisa Oleynik) fly in from college. According to Roger, the only reason he's bothered to return home is out of concern for his younger brother Jason (Blake Bashoff), a sensitive boy who serves as the go-between between his mother and stepfather and may have turned to drugs while trying to hold his family together.

Although Roger aspires to persuade his brother to leave home and join him and Brenda, any hope of a serious conversation between the brothers is thrown out of whack with the arrival of the three Frobisher girls-- Roger and Jason's step-sisters. And despite the fact that their stepfather Max (wonderfully played by David Ogden Stiers) is as gentle and easy going as they come-- even though he's constantly ordered around by his Martha Stewart like-wife, Audrey (Julia Duffy), a radio DJ dubbed a "benevolent dictator... who vomits Christmas"-- Max's three daughters are as unpredictable as Disney stepsisters.

While the lovely but dim youngest daughter Chinelle (Lauren Storm) arrives at the house first with the announcement that she's become engaged to "the most wonderful man in America," quickly celebration by her parents are halted when they realize that her fiance Carey (Joey Lawrence) was the ex-boyfriend of her meanest, self-involved older sister Sandra (Kelly Stables). Sandra and her less cruel and often overlooked sister Kaye (Michelle Page) arrive in town like a hurricane, with Sandra commandeering her stepbrother's car, insisting that if she doesn't drive she'll be carsick.

Upon stepping inside Audrey's over-decorated home, the family slowly begins to simmer to a dangerous boil that explodes in the second half when Audrey springs an unwelcome surprise on everyone wherein, instead of presents being unwrapped, their frustrations are all revealed in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. While admittedly, the film as a whole hasn't quite shaken its stagy feel as it's slightly predictable and a few major conflicts seem resolved a bit quickly (given its 85 minute running time), much to its credit-- some of the arguments and truces do feel believable. Moreover, it's much easier to empathize with the Wolders-Frobisher clan than it is to relate to most hyper-real, nearly cartoon like characters with whom we're usually presented.

Harmless and consistently entertaining-- Together is also benefited by the fact that its release on DVD shelves and for sale on Amazon.com tomorrow from PorchLight Entertainment beats the similarly themed upcoming major releases Four Christmases and Nothing Like the Holidays. But more importantly, Together Again for the First Time is sure to garner great-word-of-mouth among those who scour the shelves for something off-the-beaten-path and also when it arrives on cable television, where it should do quite well.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
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